Her Story, Her Success: An Interview with Ilise Benun
No woman is an island. We need each other to learn, grow, and thrive, especially as small business owners in a crazy world! Her Story, Her Success is a Sunbird blog series that features the stories and advice of female entrepreneurs.
Ilise Benun is a no-nonsense marketing expert in an age of hype and technological disruption. We fell in love with her down-to-earth approach to business, the result of 25 years of listening carefully to her clients and practicing what she preaches.
In this interview, we find out how Ilise went from an unemployed Spanish major to a major thought leader among the "creatively self-employed"—largely by accident. And we get a sneak peek into her thoughts about self-promotion, the pitfalls and joys of being independent, and the importance of finding the "right" clients.
How did your career in marketing start?
I was fired from my second job out of college! My degree was in Spanish and I was in the fashion industry. I got really angry and decided I was never working for anyone again. I had to come up with something…
When I looked around, I saw the creative people around me in New York. And I realized I was a little more organized than them. So I started as a professional organizer. And I started to notice that at the bottom of the piles on their desks was always something about self-promotion that they weren’t doing. I noticed that the bigger problem was getting the word out about what they do. So I evolved my services in that direction.
Early on, I had no idea what I wanted to do. When people have a very clear idea of what they want to do, it can be dangerous. You have to be able to adapt.
How have you adapted your brand over time?
I always have to practice what I preach. I think the first thing was writing. We didn’t call it content at the time (1990). I started writing articles. I had a printed newsletter called “The Art of Self-Promotion.” I shared tips and things that I learned. That got me some publicity, magazines, newspapers, as well as some of my first speaking engagements.
I work with creative professionals, and 75% of my business is with designers. That’s because I developed early on with HOW Magazine. They gave me my first speaking events and published my first book. Over the years I kept narrowing my focus and evolving my brand in the direction of that focus.
I was aware of these changes, but I wasn’t exactly strategizing. I was following the needs of the market and my brand as it represents me. So the Art of Self-Promotion became Marketing Mentor. It became clear that that’s what people needed—help getting their marketing done. Using that experience, I changed the name and changed the brand.
You say that your ideal client is a professional who is “getting clients, but not necessarily the "right clients.” What is the "right client"?
It’s different for every person. We all know who the wrong clients are! So we start by eliminating the wrong clients. I walk my clients through a process of worksheets and conversations where they get as specific as possible about what they’re looking for.
The right clients are the ones who value your services and can pay what you’re worth. For example, I have a copywriter client who has a client paying her $25/hour, which is way too low. He’s says he’s getting even lower quotes from others. He’s obviously not her ideal client. These days, with sites like Fiverr and Upwork, people are trying to get as much as possible for as little as possible.
Which makes marketing well that much more important! Is there a first step you often recommend for new clients when it comes to improving their marketing?
Most people are not doing any marketing at all, they’re doing word of mouth. In order to create what I call a marketing machine, you have to know who you’re looking for, you have to figure out what the marketing tools are that will reach them best.
Most people think they should be doing social media, which is not my favorite thing. It’s a bandwagon. What two or three marketing tools can work together in an integrated way to get the attention of your prospects or clients, to start a relationship with them?
In your “Letter to my younger self” post on LinkedIn, you talk about things you wish you could’ve told yourself when you were younger, such as not pretending to know everything, asking for help, and the importance of learning. What are some other challenges you faced upon first starting your business?
I was just young, so I knew nothing. When I looked back at all the time I wasted…. I didn’t know. There wasn't a lot of help available out there. I didn't even know to look for someone like a mentor. One of the biggest challenges was not being clear about what my goals were and what I could accomplish.
But maybe that’s just part of being young. Young people don’t think they need help. Most of my clients are “experienced newbies” who are reinventing themselves after a long career, usually they’re 30 or 40 and up. People who are established understand what they need, because they’ve been through so much.
Speaking of being established, what has surprised you the most about entrepreneurship over the years?
The freedom, how free you can be. At least in America, you can do anything you want to, if you just do the work! But most people don’t realize how much work it takes to achieve that freedom.
What surprises me is how those two things—freedom and hard work—go together. People tend to focus either on “I’m going to get to do whatever the hell I want” or “I’m working too hard.” But I think it’s about a combination of the two.
How might being a female entrepreneur have affected your business?
When I look at what’s going on in the news… every day there’s another story about a sexual harassment case. I’m not a “me-too” and I think it’s because I’m self-employed. It’s the ability to walk away from something that’s abusive. The fact that I don’t need that job—that project, that client—has stood me well, because I haven’t experienced the kinds of things that women in jobs seem to experience. I do feel that the freedom of being self-employed removes some of that inability to walk away and to speak about it.
Want to hear more from Ilise? Check out her About page to find tons of articles, podcasts, and courses.