Starting a Cause-Based Company from Scratch

Posted by Alexa Loken

I found myself working at a company at the bottom of the totem pole in the midst of budget cuts. When I was laid off, I realized I wasn’t as upset as I would have been if I had loved my position. I immediately went back to applying for jobs that I would find meaningful and honestly couldn’t find an open, full-time position that fit my skillset at an organization I was really enthusiastic about. So, my husband told me it was time to pursue the idea that got me into graduate school- starting a cause-based marketing firm.

I thought he was crazy and in less pleasant language told him it wasn’t the time because I was too young, I wasn’t in the right city, and I didn’t have enough degrees or know the right people. I gave him a laundry list of what I saw as perfectly great reasons to not move forward. He didn’t buy it and told me to buck-up and write a business plan. When I showed it to some mentors and former employers, expecting everyone to come back with major red flags of why this was such a terrible idea, everyone actually thought my plan was great.

This past spring, I launched Loken Creative, a marketing agency for cause-based organizations where innovation, idealism, and expertise create opportunities for good. Loken Creative offers a wide variety of online and traditional marketing services for strategic assessment, implementation, and training. Working on short-term (read: non-retainer) contracts, clients can choose marketing services à la carte. We now have over a dozen cause-based organizations as clients, assisting each with strategic marketing; allowing them to grow, attract donors and volunteers, and to clearly and effectively communicate their messages to the public.

I worked hard and planned well, using the following tips, which I see as the reasons behind my company’s success, thus far:

1. Know diverse people in many social circles.

 I grew up on the West Coast, went to college in DC, studied abroad in Asia, and then attended grad school in New York City, so I already had a geographically broad range of peers and mentors before I moved to Hawaii and eventually settled in Austin. I started interning my first semester of freshman year and never stopped trying new positions. In addition to working at different kinds of companies, I dabbled in online marketing, SEO, print marketing, green retrofitting, biofuel generation, energy conservation, educational school gardening, and city planning.  At this point, I either know a few people in most major areas or know someone who does. Having this network at my fingertips means always getting great, directed advice from professionals who know their niche.

2. Start with a pilot program.

A huge factor in Loken Creative’s success revolved around doing a pilot program with two clients. We were very clear it was a pilot program and modified a couple of key ways we were going to interact with future clients in order to make it more manageable for both parties to participate.  At the conclusion of the program, we were able to see what didn’t work as well as we’d hoped and adjust some processes to better facilitate our client’s needs. Having this initial feedback from clients was beneficial in order to move forward smoothly once we fully launched.

3. Create an advisor board, utilize mentors and seek advice.

When you’re the founder of a company, the buck stops with you. Although you can ask other company director’s about their thoughts, seek advice from friends or staff members, ultimately the decisions lie on your stressed out shoulders. Having an experienced, unbiased board of advisors/mentors allows for testing out of new ideas. If all the members agree it’s a good idea, it probably is.

4. Make your ideas and dreams into a concrete reality.

Never let your fears hold you back. You aren’t too young, you aren’t too inexperienced, and you will make it work financially. If any of these are issues, surround yourself with people who can help you in the areas you’re weakest in. I am horrendous at finances and terrified of taxes, so I have two CPAs on my board to make sure our policies are in good shape financially. Go forward until you see a problem and then work at a solution until you find one, or talk with someone who can help you find one.

In terms of next steps, I see Loken Creative continually expanding to help organizations around the country, in an affordable way. Being able to see the change we effect on the world, through the lens of our clients, is why I wake up every day excited to get back to work. We’re always looking for ways to improve. Please let us know if you have any ideas on overcoming your marketing challenges, particularly in the nonprofit world.