Reviving the Road Trip: Stephanie Stuckey of Stuckey’s

Stephanie Stuckey is on a mission to revive her family’s brand. Started by her grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, Sr. founded Stuckey’s as a roadside pecan stand along Highway 23 in Eastman, GA. Stuckey’s eventually became a roadside empire with its peak in the 1960s. With 368 stores in over 30 states at its height, Stuckey’s was known for offering kitschy souvenirs, clean restrooms, and its famous candies.

I spoke with Stephanie to learn more about her personal journey to restore her family’s legacy, how she has refocused the brand, and the opportunities she sees for the future.

Can you tell us the story of your entry into the business and what it has taken so far to start to bring Stuckey’s back?
I had a full career doing things other than food and the family business. I was a state representative for 14 years. I’m an attorney. I was a public defender for over a decade. I practiced environmental law and headed up sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And the last chapter of my career, I thought, would be environmental advocacy.

Then I got a completely unexpected opportunity to buy my family’s failing business. And it had been out of our family’s hands for a long time, and frankly was six figures in the red when I bought the company. We didn’t own or operate any restaurants, we only had a handful of licensed locations. We had a dusty rented warehouse full of merchandise that hadn’t turned in while.

So it was a challenge, but what I bought was a brand and it was a brand that I believed then, and definitely believe now, has sticking power. And so that’s what I believed in when I made the investment. My life savings are all sunk into reviving this brand.

In a little over two years, we’ve turned it around from $2.4 million growth in sales to over $12 million gross in sales and in the red six figures to a little over a million net profit, all of which we’re reinvesting in the company. And the way we have turned it around is through food and manufacturing.

We really went back to our roots. We started as a pecan stand on the side of the road. And so we went back to that. We bought a candy plant, a pecan-shelling plant, and a fundraising business. And the majority of our profit is being driven through the sale of our snack pecans, our in-shell pecans, our candies that we manufacture ourselves now and shell ourselves. And we’re selling to retail outlets from a mom and up store, like a gift to grocery chains and convenience store chains all over the country.

The future is bright for us. We’re looking at investing in a distribution facility that we will own instead of renting and we are expanding our candy production with new equipment and new space.


In your social media content, you really emphasize both the history of Stuckey’s and also the history of a lot of roadside stops and interesting historical brands along the way. Why is history so important to you and to the Stuckey’s brand?

I have a nostalgic brand, and I firmly believe in embracing what you truly are. And I’ve gotten all sorts of advice about how you manage nostalgic brands. But I went back to my roots in politics, which is you start with your base. The first thing I had to do was to shore up our base. We have generations of people who stopped at Stuckey’s on their road trips as kids. And those people are not only still alive, but they’re successful and have money to spend.

So I went after that demographic and those folks want to hear our story. They want to hear the history. I’m not selling to everyone everywhere, and it’s not just selling our product. It’s the story. And it’s creating a community and engaging.

I would put out the stories and I look at the analytics and I look at who engages and it’s working. So if something works, you do more of it. For example, my post today on LinkedIn was about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, because I literally had 20 people reach out to me and say, have you ever been to the Big Texan Ranch? I had about 20 people ask me if I have been to The Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, the Kentucky Fried Chicken. So I put that out yesterday and it got crazy engagement because that’s what people told me they want to hear.

Sales and marketing is a two-way street. It’s not just you. Family businesses that have persisted, the ones that are still around into the third generation and beyond, are the ones that get that.

Has there been a favorite memory since you came into the business?

There have been so many, but I’ll pick one, which I like to call my Scarlet O’Hara “I’ll never go hungry again” moment. It was right after I bought the company, and I decided to embark on a road trip because I realized that is what this brand is really about.

And so I started my road trip and I stopped at Stuckey’s, of course. And I went to this one store that looked terrible. It was in Marion, Arkansas. It literally had a hole in the roof from a tornado. And I just sat in the parking lot crying. I just could not believe that that is the condition of the wonderful company that my grandfather built and put his life’s work into.

I finally like forced myself to go into the store and that didn’t look much better, I’ll be honest. But what gave me hope was that there were people in the store. And they actually seemed pretty happy to be there! And I just thought, wow, if this brand can translate past generations where people still remember our good days, and they’re still incredibly loyal despite the downfall, what if we actually had the stores looking good? What if we actually had great products to sell, because our products had been outsourced for decades and frankly, the quality had suffered. So that gave me hope. It made me think, okay, this brand actually has sticking power.

Now in full disclosure, I have yet to get the financing I need to start owning, operating and renovating stores. I get people messaging me every day saying, “Oh, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I went to one of your stores and it looks terrible.” It’s not a big news flash. If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I’d happily do that. But right now we are focusing on what we can do right now to drive profit, which is through manufacturing.

What would you like to be remembered for?
The road trip. Professionally, I want my legacy to be about celebrating the joy of exploring America, and not just the big cities, but the small towns, by car.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I know people always say their mothers, but that is because it is true. My mom gave me a great gift. When I bought the company, she had six boxes of archives that my grandfather had left my dad, her husband, and that was just an incredible gift.

And then I had this point early on when I was deciding whether or not to buy the company. And there’s a moment of tough love. My father is a wonderful man and I love him, but we’re not perfect. And he sat me down and he said to me, “You have never even run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s?” And I was just struck by that. Suddenly I had all this lack of confidence. He was right. I’d never run a business, not even a lemonade stand. So what did make me think I could do this?

And my mom is the one who said, “You can do this. Look through these archives, look through these boxes, read how this company was founded. And guess what? Your grandmother did a lot of it. She just never got the credit.”

So I think too often when we tell the stories of family businesses, you read about Sam Walton and Colonel Sanders. You don’t read about the wives, but guess what? A lot of times, the wives are just as involved, just as critical. They just didn’t get the credit. So all these women who never got the credit, who were in these major businesses that I admire in food, they’re the ones who I think should get a shout out.

Stephanie Stuckey is the CEO of Stuckey’s, a family-owned roadside chain offering motorists a friendly stop where they can relax, refresh, and refuel. Stuckey’s is known for its Southern hospitality and candies, especially its world-famous pecan log roll. To learn more about Stuckey’s, visit their website: Stuckeys.com

Recipe for Success: An Interview with Shobha Patel of Gharana Foods

Shobha Patel is the founder of Gharana Foods, a manufacturer of authentic ethnic snacks that focuses on premium, clean label snacks with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. ​​She started Gharana Foods with just one snack – chakri – making it in her kitchen.

As word of mouth spread about the quality and flavor, the business grew as well. 18 years later, Gharana Foods is now a thriving business with a large production facility, and the next generation, led by Shobha’s son, Amit, has entered the business to help scale the operations and help their parents take a step back.

Shobha shared her remarkable story as a woman who never had any aspirations to start a business, but through commitment, determination, and dedication has built a strong premium brand that is sold in ethnic food stores all over the country.

How did Gharana Foods get started?
There were such limited food options when we immigrated to America in the 80s. Communities would always form to help give a sense of home and support however we could. We were selling different types of food to local families and the one small local Indian store. In 2004, my husband was laid off. We started the business as a need to support our family.

Did anyone else in your family ever start a business?
I grew up in a small village and my father owned a small tobacco farm. It was enough to support the family, but wasn’t very big. After I got married, my brothers took over and grew it into a larger successful business that now supports the entire town and the subsequent generations.

Did you ever think about starting a business yourself when you were younger?
Older Indian culture is very male-centric. I remember thinking growing up that I didn’t want to have to rely on someone for money or support. I never thought to myself that I would start a business, but I know I always wanted to be able to do something myself.

What has been your proudest moment since starting the business?
We started the business in a 1,000 sq ft retail space with no expectations in 2004. In 2011, we moved into a 4,000 sq. ft warehouse space. The day we moved in, I couldn’t believe it. It was such a sense of pride to be able to see something that I built grow into something this big. We’re now in over 8,000 sq. ft. and looking to expand again.

What has been the biggest lesson you learned along the way?
I never worked a job before starting the business. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize how hard each stage of the business would be. There are three things I personally learned – keep yourself calm as much as possible when dealing with employees, never panic in the face of challenges, and, most importantly, never give up. There were days I would wake up and just want to stop, but I pushed through by believing in myself and having my faith.

What would you like to be remembered for?
When we came to America, we didn’t have much money, but we survived. Growing up, I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what, but I wanted to accomplish something that I would be able to give to my kids. I’m proud that my son, my daughter, my son-in-law, my daughter-in-law, and, now their kids, are involved and running the business. It’s a dream come true.

This is Women’s History Month, so I’m curious if there has been a woman in your life who’s made a big impact who you want to acknowledge?
Unfortunately, I do not. In my head, I wanted to prove myself and do something in my life. I was blessed to be able to get the chance and be successful.


The Patel family owns and operates Gharana Foods, a premium snack company that manufacturers authentic Indian snack foods from recipes developed by Shobha Patel. The company is widely known for its chakri, a uniquely shaped snack recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. To learn more or purchase snacks, visit gharanafoods.com.

Living Her Passion: Interview with Diane Sauvage

Diane Sauvage is the director of INTERVAL, an export sales company headquartered in France that represents twelve French dairies, exporting their cheese and dairy products all over the world. Originally from Paris, Diane worked at Interval for thirteen years before taking a three-year hiatus, after which she and her husband purchased the company last summer.

I spoke with Diane to learn more about her journey and the future she sees both for the primarily family-owned dairies Interval represents, as well as her new global family business.

What has your professional journey been like? How did you end up in the cheese industry?
My journey has been in food my whole life. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in food because that’s my passion. I wake up each morning thinking, “What am I going to eat today?” I had the opportunity to start working for a large chocolate company, the first producer of chocolate in France. I joined the company to do their export in Ukraine and the United States. And I really loved it. After three years I wanted to be in the US because I really loved doing business with the US. I was able to get an 18-month contract through a program in France called VIE, which helps French companies develop their exports. The only one that was offered in New York that was not in finance was Interval, in the cheese business. I was one of the last ones to apply, and I gave everything to get it. And that’s how I ended up in the cheese industry.

Are you happy with the way it worked out?
I am very happy in cheese. The big difference between cheese and chocolate is I can eat cheese at every meal! But really it is the stories of the producers behind the cheese that I Iove the most, the stories about the producer of milk, and why each cheese was created. These stories are the best part for me.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned along the way?
Humility, definitely. And to have a good vision of where you want to go, who you are to begin with, and why you do this – because the why makes you really do it every day. For us, the why is that we really want the family businesses that we represent to stay independent. For these businesses to create value, export is a very good option. So we have a big role in helping them create value, and to keep the production of cheese where it is right now, and not only in big companies. So that’s our why.

Can you tell us about the moment in which you have been the proudest of what you have accomplished so far?
It’s funny but I was really proud when I did my goodbye party at Interval. I did a goodbye and then a hello again three years later when we purchased the company. So it’s very interesting. At the goodbye party, all the nice words that I got from our producers, our customers, it was really wonderful. I felt I made an impact and I did a good job. You don’t really feel that very often. So that was a moment where I really felt that. And that’s what matters for me. I want to make sure I bring what a customer needs and do a good job for them and for our dairies.

What was your dream profession when you were a child?
Maybe being a chef. Or an opera singer, but I didn’t know how to sing! I grew up in a family where food was at the center of our life. It was always the food for me. My grandma always said that as long as you work in a bank, you’re fine. But I knew that was not my thing. I need to taste what I sell, like what I sell, and enjoy it every day. So for me, I’m really where I am supposed to be.

Did you have a favorite meal growing up that still makes you think of your childhood when you eat it?
My favorite meal is roasted chicken. That’s a very traditional meal every Sunday, a whole roasted chicken. That would be my last meal also. With cheese, of course!

What is your vision for Interval’s future?
The future is to expand our sales and have offices in other countries other than in the US. Right now we just have two in the US, but we will be expanding to a more global presence.

This is Women’s History Month, so I’m curious if there has been a woman in your life who’s made a big impact who you want to acknowledge?
I would say the women in my family because when I think about it, all the women in my family were/are very strong women. My sister is an everyday support, my mom was an inspiration of hard work and my grandmother was an example of generosity and warmth.

My grandma on my mother’s side worked in a nonprofit her whole life, and she was the president. She would go to the hospital to make children smile. She was one of those grandmothers that go and play with the children that have cancer. That made a big impression on me because I was going with her, and sometimes it would be very hard to see kids like that. She kept on going until she died actually. It was pretty impressive.

My mom also was a very hard worker and had so much courage. She was never afraid of climbing the big mountains. She would just go for it. She created two businesses from scratch, and still found time to be a mother. I grew up with a mother and a business owner, so that also made a big impression on me.

Last but not least my sister is the best family manager I know – she holds everybody together with grace… including me. Her advice is just the best for me, it helps me to always see the glass half full.

Diane and her husband Nicolas are the directors of INTERVAL, an export agency and ambassador of French regional dairy products. They lead a team of multicultural, passionate experts in the export of French cheese. Since 1981, INTERVAL is the export department of 12 French dairies, all specialized in terroir products. INTERVAL exports nearly 5,000 tons of French cheeses, butter, and creams, to North America, Europe, and Asia. If you want to learn more about INTERVAL, please visit their website: intervalexport.com

Deep Roots: Sunnyland Farms Interview

Staci Willson and her husband Alex are the 4th generation owners of Sunnyland Farms, a unique pecan farm, processor, manufacturer, and catalog retail business.

Located in what has long been known as the “Pecan Capital of the World” Albany, Georgia, Staci and Alex are continuing to honor their family’s legacy, and build a bright future.

Knowing that Sunnyland is a 4th generation family business, can you tell us a bit about the history of the company?
Sunnyland has a unique story. It started when my husband’s great-grandfather inherited beautiful pecan groves down here in Southwest Georgia, originally around 5,000 acres. Our groves today are around 1,700 acres, all planted with beautiful pecan trees. Alex’s granddad was a Harvard businessman, and after World War II decided he was gonna come down with his wife Jane from Atlanta and move to the agriculture hub of Albany, Georgia. They were already selling some of the Willson family pecans to college friends, etc., and thought there just might be something to that!

So they moved down here in the late 40s and started to cultivate the farm and started the mail-order business in 1948, just selling Sunnyland pecans. And from there it started to flourish. Then they started to add praline pecans, candies, cakes, and added other mixed nuts to their products. Developing relationships with nut farmers worldwide was crucial for maintaining Sunnyland’s standard of “Only the Best.” We still benefit from these relationships today, purchasing the highest quality almonds from California, Macadamias from South Africa, and gorgeous Cashews from India.

In the seventies, Larry, Alex’s dad, who is the third generation, came back and started to help his dad modernize the growing operation. He was one of the first pecan farmers in the industry to implement irrigation. He planted new and upcoming pecan varieties, which we are bearing the fruit from now. Pecan trees take 15-20 years to mature, so you really have to implement a long-term plan to see it through fruition.

With that long legacy, what are you and Alex doing now to keep it thriving?
Right, so Alex is the fourth generation. We moved back about six years ago and since we have been involved, we’ve been working on really modernizing the catalog business, the online business, the SEO, and all of the digital marketing and sales aspects of the business.

My thumbprint has been on most of the catalog business, recipe development and PR/Marketing. Our catalog is still a huge part of our business, we mail almost 3.2 million catalogs a year nationwide! You would think in the modern age, it might not be, but it is. And we’re really trying to minimize packaging and become greener. We’re working on sustainable energy as well, using some of our pecan shells to fuel our shelling plant.

Is there anything else that is unique about the company and your team?
I know I focused on the Willson men, but a legacy that Sunnyland has always had is a husband and wife partnership. And that started way back with Jane and Harry. They really were ahead of their time and Jane took such an active leadership role in the business. It continued with Larry and Beverly in the seventies, and now it continues with me and Alex, so it’s really a joint partnership and a beautiful legacy to continue.

We’re very, very proud to say that most of our workforce is 80% female. We have had really wonderful lifetime employees across the board as well. We just celebrated 44 years of retirement last week with one of our very best long-term employees. And that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s not an uncommon thing to have multi-generations working here, like we’ll have a mother and a daughter working in a department together.

How did you and Alex decide to come into the family business? Was that an easy decision?
We were living in Nashville at the time when Alex and I met, he was in the financial industry and I was working in the food industry. We were in our late twenties and I remember asking him, as you do in planning for your future, do you ever wanna go back and step into your dad’s/granddad’s footsteps? And I was asking myself, do I want to go back and be a part of this farm, this business, and this family? He never would rule it out and I wouldn’t rule it out either. It took us probably about five more years to make the final move down here from Atlanta.

In the end, the one thing that we wanted to do was make a difference. We love this community, and wanted Sunnyland to grow and thrive as an employer. We decided we can make a bigger difference by moving to Albany than we could by working in our respective industries in Atlanta. We can make a difference and continue a beautiful legacy of giving back.

And I was just fascinated with the farm, and the recipe development is something that I loved. It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful lifestyle change from Atlanta down here, and a great place to raise the family, and really put our roots down and give back.

On a personal note, is there someone who you looked up to as a hero growing up?
I would definitely have to say Julia Child. I come from the beverage and food hospitality industry, and she was just such a pioneer and leader. As a female within that industry and gaining the respect she did and continues to have, she is someone that I’ve always looked up to. I’m not a chef, I’m a cook, and I love all of her recipes, and her personality, and just her fearlessness. She had so much courage to lead in the male-driven, culinary world. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss these things!

What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learned along the way?
Definitely flexibility. Since we’ve moved back, we’ve dealt with devastating weather events, like Hurricane Michael where we lost 5,000 trees, a whole crop. Then we are dealing with the new digital marketing landscape that exists now. And then COVID. So we’ve been in constant crisis management since we moved back.

Now dealing with inflation and production shortages that affect our business from start to finish. So I have really had to work on flexibility. Things are always going to change. The life cycle of the business cycle is going to go up, and it’s going to go down.

And you manage that through embracing leadership within. We are very, very big on individual voices and we appreciate honesty and directness from our management leaders. We couldn’t do it without them.

What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. I would probably say commitment. Commitment to things that matter. Commitment to quality. Commitment to roots, to people, our team, to family, to Sunnyland. I moved around a lot in my life prior to this, and joining this family and this business and everything… roots mean a lot to me. I want to invest in people’s futures. We’re going to figure out ways to thrive in the middle of these crises. I think that’s something that we’ve done and will continue to do.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
Oh my goodness, there have been so many. I would probably go all the way back to my middle school chorus teacher, Miriam Walton in Richmond Virginia. She was so dynamic and so energetic. She led by example and encouraged my growth as a performer and singer. She had so much energy and passion for what she did. We still keep in touch and I’m proud to know her.

She encouraged me to step out and have courage, and believe in my talent. Getting up and singing a solo was difficult in middle school, but she encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think that honed some amount of leadership, learning to push through fear and knowing what courage looks like. And I know that may sound silly in middle school at a spring concert, but I look back at that and I really appreciate the influence she had on me.

That’s great. I think middle school is one of the most difficult times to stand up yourself, but if you can do it in middle school, you can do it forever.
Right. You know if you can do it in that moment, then you can do it forever, and in many other eras in your life.

Staci and Alex Willson are co-owners of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760 acre farm nestled in the heart of Pecan Country in Albany, Georgia. Since 1948 Sunnyland has been the premier provider of gourmet Georgia Pecans, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits, and assortments of gifts for all occasions. Their incredible gourmet, heart-healthy and Kosher-certified snacks and pecans are the perfect treats. To learn more about Sunnyland Farms, visit their website: sunnylandfarms.com

Photography by David Parks

Brand strategy is the missing link between execution and result

During the past month, I have heard the same situation over and over. It goes something like this:

“We keep trying different things, and some of them seem to work okay, but we just aren’t consistent, and there is definitely no strategy. It feels like we are just throwing stuff at the wall. There is no clarity or consistency in what we are doing.”

Or maybe something like this:

“We just invested in a big new initiative (launched a podcast, redoing our website, updated our packaging, launching a new product), but I am worried it might not be right. We still don’t really have a succinct, compelling message, or any clear plan to get the word out about it or use it to generate sales.”

These are symptoms of the same issue: No brand strategy.

Why is brand strategy fundamental to making marketing execution more effective? And what IS a brand strategy anyway?

Imagine this scenario. You are getting ready to go on vacation to Belize that has been on your bucket list for over a decade, and you are about to pack your suitcase. You stare at your closet, and realize that you don’t even know where to start. What size suitcase do you need? Do you pack long sleeves or just beach gear? Sandals, hiking boots, or swim fins? You start listing all of the things that you could possibly need on your trip. 

So here are some tips to start building a brand strategy that will give you the clarity you need to move forward with confidence:

  1. Ask the question: “If nothing else changed in our business, what is the one initiative that would make the biggest impact to get us to our goals?”

    This is an easy way to start to separate the “must-haves” from the “nice-to-haves.” Instead of framing it as what is most important to the business (which is often difficult to answer), framing it as a creative problem within the framework of “nothing else changes” starts to elicit a different kind of energy and a different response. You can still brainstorm and have heated internal discussions about what the “one thing” is, but chances are, the options won’t be a list of random marketing tasks you can spend time and money on.
  2. Talk directly to your customers or prospects, and find out what matters most to them.

    Anyone who knows me will know that I am a broken record when it comes to this, but that’s because it works so well and companies simply don’t do it. If you aren’t regularly talking to your ideal customers about what their biggest pain points are, where they learn about new products or services, and what brands they couldn’t live without and why, and what they wish you knew about them, building a meaningful strategy is going to be practically impossible. If you are ready to take the plunge, you can download my step-by-step guide on how your team start interviewing your ideal customers today. (for email, this should be a link to the download instead)
  3. Talk openly about your fears. Then make a practical plan to mitigate them.

    I see a lot of family businesses spin their wheels because they are afraid of making a critical mistake. They don’t want to offend a critical customer. Or create confusion in the market. Or waste a large, rare opportunity. These are all legitimate fears, but they can all be dealt with, usually through a clear and consistent communication plan. Figure out who needs to know what and when (and then tell them a few more times!), and you’ll be good to go.

  4. Involve an outsider.

    You can’t read the label on your own bottle, and that truth is pretty much our team’s job security. Have someone involved in the process who understands your business but who isn’t in the weeds or emotionally attached to the status quo.  It can really help you get much further, faster. (I have advisors and colleagues who I will involve in my own brand strategy work because I know I simply can’t get there efficiently on my own.)

  5. Be clear about what outcomes you will see, hear, feel, and measure if you are successful.

    It is all too common for growing companies to make an investment that they “feel should be valuable” without taking the time to clarify what success looks like. If you just end up with impressions or awareness, is that enough? I often see sales and marketing teams track metrics like impressions, open rate, or engagement, and then they are disappointed when the activity doesn’t result in any new sales or leads. Not all impacts need to be directly measurable, but at least some of them should be. The desired outcomes need to be clear in everyone’s mind before any new initiative is kicked off. 

If you can identify your “one thing,” talk to your ideal customers, make a plan to mitigate risks, involve an outside perspective, and clearly envision and measure success, you will have the clarity you need to make strategic decisions. You may not have a formal strategy document, but your team will have the guardrails they need to be able to make informed judgment calls. They will never be perfect, but they won’t be far off base.

And if you feel stuck, we do offer a three-session Build Your Brand Strategy workshop that guides your leadership team through the process and decision-making so you walk away with clarity and a road map to execute. Just respond to this email if you want more detail.

How to build strategic brand and marketing skills in your company

Growing family businesses often get stuck at a common tipping point: do I hire marketing talent internally or outsource it to an expert agency? If I hire internally, am I hiring for strategy or for execution? The answer is a third way: engage an experienced mentor to develop your internal marketing team. 

My son, Henry, is in kindergarten, and has all of the sudden gained a new confidence in and love for drawing. He was never interested in it before he went to school (and had to do it every day), so it has been so fun to see a new world open up for him. 

To encourage him, I have been finding new things for us to draw and experiment with, including, most recently, some doodling videos with Mo Willems, a children’s book author/illustrator who Henry adores. If you aren’t familiar with his books, Mo Willems recurring characters include a obstinate pigeon (from “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus”) and two odd couple best friends, Gerald (an elephant) and Piggie (a pig).

Henry and I were watching videos of Mo Willems teach us step-by-step how to draw these characters, and then trying it ourselves. There was lots of pausing, rewinding, false starts, angrily crumbled fails, and increasingly competent pigs, elephants, and pigeons. 

When we were done, I looked back at the process we just went through, and started to reflect on it. 

Believe it or not, I think there are some takeaways for family-owned businesses who have been caught between the rock and hard place of needing strategic marketing and positioning expertise, but without the budget to hire an internal marketing team. 

Here is the situation I see all too often.

  • A business has grown organically over the years. The founder or founding team has strategic relationships, grit, and a willingness to try, fail, and quickly learn that allow them to find a loyal customer base and grow it.
  • That strong foundation yields new opportunities. — new markets or new channels or a strategic acquisition — which are high-stakes and need a new level of positioning strategy and marketing support to be successful.
  • They are then faced with a hard choice. Do we pay a price premium for outside experts that leave us dependent on them while we grow? Do we hire a marketing generalist who can get stuff done, but who is looking to us for direction and strategy that we can’t provide? Do we hire an experienced VP or CMO-level strategic thinker who will command a high salary, and who will still need additional budget for execution support? 

What is the right answer? It is a tough situation, and there really is no one “right” answer. That said, I do think there can be a path that allows these growing companies to have the best of all worlds.

Which brings me back to drawing Piggie with Henry. 

Piggie is an extremely simple character to draw. Some ovals, some lines. That’s pretty much it. 

But when I tried on my own to draw some Mo Willems characters from memory for Henry, the results were hilariously bad. Not even close. 

Mo, on the other hand, has the skill to make these super simple shapes become highly engaging characters with a depth of personality and feeling.

In his videos, Mo Willems breaks down the shapes, and their placement. We start drawing “lopsided donuts” and adding elevens for nostrils and for eyes. We learn that you need to beef up the elevens for the eyes so they get a bit fat, since the eyes are the most important part of the character. You get the idea.

Henry and I are far from doing what Mo Willems does in his books, but with some step-by-step videos and about 90 minutes of iteration, you can see the progress in Henry’s artwork. 

Not bad, right? 

He is getting more and more confident with his drawings, experimenting with Piggie’s eyes and mouth to see if he can more closely mimic the expressiveness of the storybook characters he loves.

Okay, so what is my point? The solution for companies stuck with the choice of the agency hamster wheel vs. hiring either strategy or execution internally is this guided development.

Brand and marketing strategy is pretty similar to Piggie. How you successfully enter a new market or reposition a decades old brand for growth is a step-by-step process. The fundamentals are simple. Knowing how you apply them to various real-world scenarios takes more experience and finesse, but it is still just variations on and application of the fundamentals.

This step-by-step process for positioning a brand for new growth is no different than Mo Willems process for drawing Piggie out of simple shapes. Manipulating those simple shapes into a more complexly textured brand and strategy takes practice, but it isn’t impossible to learn.

Here is what a “third way” scenario could look like:

  • The company hires a marketing person who can get stuff done internally who matches their values and really “gets” the brand and the vision.
  • They have an experienced external guide “show their work” to this internal resource. 
  • The two collaborate, giving the emerging marketing talent the opportunity to experiment and learn, but with the guidance they need to not waste years of company growth opportunity and tens of thousands of dollars guessing.

This could be done in a number of different ways. 

An experienced mentor could be found in alumni from some of the goliath brands in your niche. I just talked to a company founder who contracted the former head of global brand marketing of Reebok and the head of global digital advertising of Adidas to support a promising employee who now handles their marketing full-time. He said that her capabilities have blossomed, and he feels great about the investment in her future and in growing that resource internally.

You could also find a “fractional CMO” who could work on a part-time contract basis, and make mentorship part of their scope of work for your marketing team. 

At Six-Point, we have also developed our own solution to support family businesses: a “do-it-with-me” version of our Solve for Y strategy system that provides six-week guided sessions for internal marketing teams. We work with the company leadership to set objectives, and then work with your marketing team of one or more employees to create a strategy and tactical plan to meet those objectives. The employees have understanding, buy-in, and ownership, and they are accountable for executing the plan and tracking agreed upon lead metrics. 

The important thing is to remember that this critical junction in your company’s growth does not have to be an either/or. There is the opportunity to have both. 

Investing in talent can be a bit scary, but not as scary as hiring a great person and setting them up to fail. As the business maxim goes: Don’t ask what happens if I invest in developing my employee and they leave? Do ask what happens if I don’t invest in developing them and they stay?

If you want to talk about how we can help you develop your internal marketing team, send me an email or schedule a call with me.

(Now, was that too much of a stretch to share Henry’s awesome drawings? This proud mama says no way!)