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Two-Way Street MKG Marketing—The Early Years Part 3

Kerry Guard • May 19, 2022 • 9 minutes to read

Told from the perspective of our co-founder and CEO, Kerry Guard Ps. this is the second part to this chapter. Be sure to read part 2 if you haven’t already.


In December of 2014, Mike and I flew into Portland to meet Christian, Adam, and our intern. We booked a boardroom at the Kimpton hotel where we spent the day reflecting on who we’ve become. Media Group was no longer relevant. We were so much more than media planners. Our values HIP (Honesty, Integrity, and People) weren’t enough. They didn’t encompass the full picture of who we now were.

By the end of the eight hours that day we emerged a new company—MKG Marketing Inc. We had five values—People First, Fearless, Big Picture, Exceed Expectations, and Selfless Pride. And we were on a mission to help our clients feel like our only client with our primary services of Website Design & Development, Search Engine Marketing, and Research & Analytics. We just had our very first In-Person Summit.

In kicking off the new year of 2015 as a more defined company. Little did we know this would be our most transformative year to date with a lot of firsts.

It started with our People First value being put to the test, a pregnancy test that is. In February of 2015, I became pregnant with twins which was action packed with complications in the early days, not to mention endless nausea. This made working difficult. I did my best as I was the only website designer and developer on the team.

One night a partner called me with last minute website changes. We were going live the next day and the client wanted to change the color of the separation bars on the side menu. It was nine at night. I wasn’t sleeping well and did I mention the morning, afternoon, evening and nighttime sickness? While on the phone, I actually cried.

“Alex, I’m pregnant and I need to go to bed. We’ll push this live tomorrow then we can iterate. Once it’s live we can then make tweaks over time, but this is not important enough to do right now especially when I’m not feeling well and can’t think.”

Woah. Client boundaries and not my finest moment. Which was why I needed to not work past my bedtime. Clearly the sanity plan was out the window and needed to get back on track.

After that, Mike and I had a heart-to-heart. This was before video calling was a thing so we were just on the phone. My Google phone was resting on my desk. I was leaning back in my chair, looking up at the ceiling as Mike asked a very real and honest question, “How important is website design and development to you?”

After that call with Alex, it really wasn’t.

“You’re the only person who can build and maintain websites and you’re about to go on maternity leave. We can either build you a team to support this ongoing service line, or we can hone in on other services we’re offering.”

I’m a numbers person. I needed data. So, we looked at our finances.

Building websites was actually a money pit. We were barely breaking even. SEO on the other hand was cleaning up. PPC also was also doing well and you need analytics to measure the effectiveness of both. So with that, we stopped being, “Yes People” and honed into three service lines that complimented each other.

About six months into my pregnancy, I remember sitting on the sofa, cross-legged, leaning over to work on my laptop. Adam asked if could chat for a few minutes. This didn’t cross my mind as anything unusual. I didn’t think twice or blink. Just said sure and we hopped on a call. And that’s when he told me. He had been mentoring a young boy for a year or so by that point and he loved it so much he wanted to go back to school and become a teacher. This was him giving notice.

I was devastated. My first employee to leave and of all people to lose. But I was in awe of this human and his big heart. How could I do anything other than congratulate him, wish him all the best and let him know our door was always open.

After Adam’s departure, we took a look at our clients and the work we were doing. Christian had a good handle on the SEO side of the house and there was so much of it, he really needed help with the paid side now.

And once again, Christian knew just the person—Jessica Ward. Jessica was a new mom and her current job required the ultimate commute from hell. Working remotely was a dream come true for Jessica and a great fit for who we needed at the time. Like me, Jessica’s husband was a computer engineer who also worked remotely so her joining a remote-team wasn’t a stretch. It was right in her wheelhouse.

And good thing it was because Jessica came to us at the perfect time. Not just to run our digital ads campaigns, which she crushed in terms of client goals, but Jessica’s brain worked like an engineer. She was a master at creating systems and processes for everything. She recommended we bring on a project management platform. So we started using Basecamp.

Around the same time Jessica started, I picked up the book, SCRUM, Twice the Work in Half the Time. Jessica was the perfect person to collaborate with on implementing sprints, stand=ups, and retrospectives. We were already doing a bit of this before Adam left, but Jessica helped us take it to the next level. More on that later.

MKG Marketing had four employees—me, Mike, Christian and Jessica.

At the end of November in 2015, I had my twins. I took two full months off and in February of 2016, I worked my way back.

First of all, two months is not long enough for any kind of family leave, let alone twins. I clearly lost my mind. I had a nanny and Damien still worked from home, but between the babies not sleeping and nursing I was exhausted and I should not have been working. But Mike was going on his honeymoon two months later and I wanted to make sure I could hold down the fort while he was gone. And what a fort it was. The fort that Mike built.

Mike was doing gangbusters bringing on new business. We had more work than we had staff and process. Christian and Jessica were doing the best they could to keep up, but it was unmanageable. While Mike was on his honeymoon, Christian told me Adam was back in marketing and to give him a call. He immediately agreed to jump on as a contractor to tide us over until Mike came returned.

Mike came back and we hired Adam, but we still had more work than we had people. A lot of the time and energy that was slowing Christian, Adam and Jessica down was all the weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting they were doing. They owned the output for their clients. We needed an analyst to release the pressure and give back time so Christian, Adam, and Jessica could focus on the strategy and executional side of the channels they managed. Adam recommended an analyst, Spencer Mayes. Just like that, we were six people.

At this point I had moved back to Seattle. Mike was still in San Francisco. Christian, Adam, Spencer were in Vancouver, WA and Jessica was outside of Portland. By this point, it never occurred to us that we were doing anything special. That remote-work would be the future and that we were on the cutting edge. We just kept expanding from one state to the next, following the great people who wanted to join us and not thinking anything of it. Then COVID-19 came to play and over night, the world went remote.

Remote Meet Leadership

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The world shut down. Everyone who could was required to work from home.

For MKG, it was essentially another day (apart from our kids being home and not being able to leave the house). For most everyone else it felt like their lives were turned upside-down. Now they had to work from home, which was either isolating or overcrowded. On top of being trapped with kids or animals or other living things, people had to learn how to work remotely without systems or workflows to support them, and without managers and leaders who knew how to lead from afar (many of whom still don’t). This is why some major corporations are demanding everyone back in the office now that things are opening up after two years. Because they don’t know how to support people when they can’t see them.

Well, we have to figure it out. Remote work is no longer a “nice to have” or a benefit. It’s the standard. Like when electric powered windows only came in high-end BMWs and now if you get in a car with a manual twisty handle you know it must be 20 years old.

Good news everyone, because MKG Marketing was built as a remote company from day one over 10 years ago, I can help you lead from your desk, in your house, across multiple time zones.

Clearly a lot happened between 2011 and 2015 that helped us establish who we are today, but the real work began when we went from six people to fifteen. Scaling a people-first culture while fully remote is no small task. Our values were pushed with every milestone. We’ve learned a lot so far and given Mike and I are out to build a business that will live beyond our careers, waiting until our story is “finished” would be a disservice to not share how we’re currently able to balance freedom and accountability. And that’s where this series sits.

It’s a two-way street.

As the employer, set a clear company culture with a mission and values worthy of people’s time. Identify clear roles and responsibilities to keep people focused. Create a path of growth and opportunity so people can build longevity. Set clear expectations of how people should show up and what their output should look and feel like. Finally, measure it—let people know where they are.

On the flip side, employees need to show up, engage, and deliver. With clear expectations laid out, there should be no ambiguity about what that is. This is not to say we’re not human and life isn’t going to cause bumps in the road that will make it difficult to show up 100% at work all the time. ut with a transparent culture, clear lines of communication, and long-term opportunity, as their employer we can support our team through it so they want to show up and give it their all each day.

This series will walk through both sides of the street so the employer reading this knows which side to drive on, at what speed, and for how long and employees will have a clear map on how to follow.

This is a mini-series with new chapters dropping each month. While you wait for the next chapter, tune into Tea Time with Tech Marketing Leaders and learn from other marketers on the challenges they’re facing and solutions they’re leaning into.

See you next month, where I share the foundation to any business, remote or otherwise—Company Values.

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