Lockdown Economy USA in a Branding and Communications Agency with Jonathan Hanwit

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In the interview, we meet Jonathan Hanwit, the Chief Engagement Officer of thinkPARALLAX, a branding and communications agency in Encinitas California. ThinkParallax is a branding and communications business focused on sustainability that works with large companies such as Twitter to help communicate the story of the work those companies are doing to promote sustainability to their stakeholders in the community, which includes customers, consumers, and employees. During the early days of the shutdown, the business adjusted to remote work and started pushing publications into the media and holding virtual events to get the businesses brand out there. The business lost a few food and beverage companies, but the company has been getting new proposals and the future business prospects are promising.

What do you do as a business?

Jonathan: Our business is a branding and communications agency. We are focussed on sustainability. So typically big, publicly traded companies have a department that’s focussed on environmental and social impacts. They hire us to tell the story of all the work they are doing to their audiences-the audiences being investors, customers, consumers and employees.

How long have you been doing it?

Jonathan: Believe it or not, we have been in business for seventeen years. We have had a focus around the purpose for about ten years and a really very specific focus on corporate sustainability and communication for five years.

That sounds like a long time. Where are you based?

Jonathan: Our office is here in Encinitas, California. Encinitas is like a beach town that is in the north part of San Diego county. But we have employees in San Francisco, up in Washington, Park City and one just moved to Florida. So now, it’s becoming a very distributed workforce. I think it’s a pretty cool thing. It’s one of the benefits, I think, of what has happened through this whole lockdown situation.

How many employees and clients do you normally have?

Jonathan: Right now, honestly it’s about fifteen and fifteen, which is just a coincidence. We have about fifteen employees and fifteen clients. But granted, hopefully, the business continues to grow, both the number of clients grows and the number of employees too.

I hope so too. What did you do on the business front during the lockdown?

Jonathan: Well, on a lot of different levels, we did a lot of different things. I think in the beginning, like immediately, we went to have a remote workforce. So we were working on Wednesdays and Fridays from home. So we transitioned just to full-time at home. That was back in March. The transition was more or less pretty seamless. We got better obviously, doing only video conferences, opposite calls, I think, just to stay connected. And we thought of ways to kind of engage with our culture. And then that was the business. We definitely had to completely evolve our marketing to become entirely virtual because we had nine events planned from between March and June. Those were in person, whether we were speaking, going to a conference or actually having our own little events. So that was a very big change in terms of the sales and marketing efforts that we were putting forward.

What have you tried, to stimulate the business and attract customers? What worked and what didn’t?

Jonathan: That was definitely one of the things. We were just immediately like, “Wow! What are we going to do?”. We had big plans to meet lots of people in person and to push our brand out there, all these events and so. The things that have been working you real hard. We doubled down on all the virtual events. So we have something that we call “Perspectives”. That’s something where we have events that are with a panel. A guy named Mike from my team moderates it. We talk about relevant topics. That is basically a webinar, that gets our brand out there and gets us to meet more and more folks. And then we have a couple of thousand folks that could potentially be clients of ours. We just really focused on the ideas like, “How do we engage with them on a consistent level?”. And on top of that, “How do we put out more thought leadership, articles and content into the world?”, like those that include sustainability communications. Just so we position ourselves as a thought leader in the space. So when someone looks out to the world that potentiates one of those people, they have us in the top of their minds and reach out to us. So it has been pretty successful because in October, November and now in December, we have gotten a lot of “asks” for proposals. So at some level, it must be working.

If you took time off, what was your thinking behind that decision?

Jonathan: I took a little bit of time off but I think for our employees we took some measures. First and foremost we were like, “Your mental health is most important”. Because of the amount of anxiety, pressure, stress and depression, that was and is facing everyone around the country. We are well over aware of that. Your personal life and how you are doing mentally is more important than any job. That’s my personal belief. No job is that important. So we said on certain Fridays throughout the summer, maybe in April-May, I can’t remember exactly, we would take Fridays offs. So we said, “Hey, just take a Friday off.”. If you needed a mental health day and if you were just flat off needed a day off because you really needed the time off, we were pretty much like, “Take a day off”. We have been doing that with our employees. We still have the same mantra of just like, “Do what you need to do.”. That can also be like, “I need to spend the day with my kids because there is no help” or “Hey, I need to go surfing for the day as I can’t take it anymore, I need a break.”. We have been very open to that.

How is your business going now?

Jonathan: The business is going well. So we lost a couple of clients. They were all food and beverage clients, right with this hit. Then after that, most of them, we kind of resigned and kept the work going. Then like I mentioned, we pushed ourselves at marketing, pretty heavy all through April-May-June-July-August-September. Then we have been getting quite a few new proposals and putting some new work. So knock on wood! The business is pretty solid as of right now and next year is looking pretty good.

Glad to hear it. Do you know how your customers and competition are doing?

Jonathan: I think our customers, the people that we know we are in touch with, we have a very good pulse on what their business is doing. Both because we are talking with them, usually weekly but then also as we stay attuned, like with Google Alerts of what is actually happening in the news, with the company. I think we are pretty in touch with what our customers are doing. As for our competition, it is pretty broad. So the ones that are not here, like say in my general vicinity, I don’t really know how they are doing. But I do know a few other marketing, branding and communications ad agencies, that are in Southern California. A few of them have struggled. I know one of them went from like thirty employees down to six. It’s just like us, we lost three of our fifteen clients. Luckily our portfolio was diversified enough and we could kind of make do with what we had. So that kept us afloat. But I know that few folks in our industry are really struggling.

What is the outlook on the coming few months?

Jonathan: The first quarter of 2021 looks great. We already have the work plan, we know what we are doing, the sales are good. We are busy and we are even hiring a little bit. And then we just need to continue pushing forward with our brand awareness and our sales and marketing, to make sure we get the numbers we want to hit in Q2, Q3 and Q4. So it feels really good and I think we are more and more in the world of communication and sustainability. I think the world understands that businesses need to be more resilient, given what is happening in the world. So there becomes more and more of a need for companies to communicate the work they are doing around, being a resilient sustainable business.

Name three things your business needs help with.

Jonathan: Our business is perfect, we don’t need help with anything! I’m just kidding. The three things that we need help with, I say A-It’s always difficult for the recruiting pieces, for us to find the right people. I think, just finding really the right fit, of the right experience, that is not too experienced, that understands our space and maybe is a good culture fit, that’s the issue for most businesses. So the recruiting piece is a really difficult thing. I think we have a really good culture. I’m the boss. So I have a skewed view. But I think people for the most part like working there. We have created a pretty inclusive, fun culture. But I think that we, like other businesses, really need to work on how we create and evolve a culture of this remote workforce. It’s very hard to stay connected. It’s an international issue, I’m sure it’s a global issue. So, culture! I think we need help with really continuing to evolve the conversation understanding how diversity-inclusion fits in both with our company, with our employees and with our culture. And also externally, how we are working with our clients. I think that’s like an ongoing conversation and I have these great conversations with a woman in my team. She’s probably 20 years younger than me and it’s always eye-opening to understand her perspective. Because, as you get older, it’s hard to see things in different lights. You have known it a certain way and then you are like, “Is that really how you are thinking?”. So I think, she has really made me aware, especially, in addition to what has happened with “Black Lives Matter” and everything else that has gone over this past year of just. How much work we need to do collectively around understanding how to become more inclusive on all levels. So these are probably the three biggest things that we need to work on, in addition to all of our process. There are processes like producing some of the work that we do and then getting more work, which everyone is always focused on. So those are three things that I think will help weave together the company and the culture cohesively.

So is there anything else that you would like to share with us about your business?

Jonathan: I appreciate the opportunity. I think it’s great to hear what is happening in the space from the work you guys are doing. It’s great understanding of how companies are using creativity and innovation to survive. And I think that this is hopefully a once in a lifetime circumstance. But what it’s going to do, is make us as a business. And potentially, millions of other ones out there really understand what’s important both for the values of the people that work there and also the business itself. So A-get our priority straight-and then B-figure out how to be more innovative to stay in business. Because you have got it. We are thinking of new ways of doing things and maybe new services to sell. Just because the market continues to change. We need to be resilient and sustainable like everyone else. So I think being a part of this with you and hearing from other businesses is a really useful tool. I really appreciate the opportunity.

About the Guest

We are a sustainability-focused branding and communications agency working with corporations to tell the story of their social, environmental and community impact. We build internal and external campaigns, develop communication plans, create content and support an array of digital and print-based projects.

https://linkedin.com/thinkparallax

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.