Calm approach to growth

0610BrownBoots

High tech and soft sell work well for BrownBoots Interactive

Story by John R. Ingrisano

SOME EXPERTS CALL THEM “UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENTS,” those rare men and women who are great at what they do, yet who don’t seem to realize the uniqueness of their own success, or even how they achieve it.

Others call it doing business by osmosis. It just happens. They just do it.

That’s the impression one gets after just a few minutes of talking with Alan Hathaway, founder and president of BrownBoots Interactive in Fond du Lac. He makes his company’s 10-year success seem easy, almost effortless. Just don’t ever confuse what he does with dumb luck. No way.

Still, ask the 42-year-old Hathaway what BrownBoots does, and he has to think about it for a minute before he answers. One thing is certain: Evolving his business from a one-man, back-bedroom Web design company to a full-service advertising agency with a staff of seven fulltime employees and a Who’s Who list of locally-based big name clients in just one decade is a rare feat … and there is much that other business owners can learn from how Hathaway does business.

Doing well by doing good

“I’M NOT A HARD-SELL KIND OF GUY,” Hathaway explained. No, he’s not. However, he is involved – deeply involved – in his community of Fond du Lac. In this osmosis approach to marketing (which is really more a lifestyle than a marketing strategy), it is not always easy to tell where his business ends and his role as a community supporter starts.

“We’ve grown without doing a lot of marketing for ourselves,” he said. “We decided early on to invest ourselves in the community.” Some of this is hands-on networking. Some of it is simply community pride. Whatever you want to call it, Hathaway is committed. He is chairman of the board of the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce, and he serves on the board of the Fond du Lac YMCA, the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, the Fond du Lac Children’s Museum and the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp.

In this respect, his most memorable project was working with Young Professionals of Fond du Lac (www.ypfdl.org). He and his team at BrownBoots helped put together its Web site and much of its initial marketing materials, and eventually helped organize the inaugural Leaderfest event. “We established the name and the look and it took off.

“I think it’s important to be involved.  It’s also fun,” he said. “I also encourage our employees to be involved in the community.”

This also explains why Alan tends to view clients not so much as a means to profit, but as people with needs to be met. When he talks about what makes BrownBoots Interactive special, he points out part of the company’s business model is to offer state-of-the-art, hi-tech solutions to customers’ needs. But he is quick to add, “We’re in a position to help others. It’s always a good day at BrownBoots when we get a referral to another company. That’s a sign we’re doing something right.

“I love every day that I can help people. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, if you can walk away at the end of the day knowing you made a difference. I help them through a problem because they need to reach a new audience, update their Web site, and more.”

Right place, right time

AFTER GRADUATING FROM THE UNIVERSITY of Wisconsin-Oshkosh with a bachelor’s degree in art and design, Hathaway joined a regional advertising agency. In the mid ‘90s, he was given the opportunity to work with computers – which were newer to the agency at the time – exploring Web development and programming during the infancy of that industry.

“It was a natural fit,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

So, in 1999, he set out on his own, as a freelance Web designer, working from home. The business just grew from there.

Over the years, he has picked up, and retained, some serious clients.

“One of my first clients, in 1999, was the Kohler Company,” he said. “I’m proud to say they’re still my client. It’s been an evolving relationship. We also work with Mercury Marine, Brenner Tank in Fond du Lac, Mayline Company and National Exchange Bank in Fond du Lac.

Hathaway makes it seem effortless, as he seamlessly shifts between community service and the office. When asked what keeps him up at night, he laughs and says, “Caffeine.” Still, he is always working and planning. Working in a high-tech industry can be challenging as technology changes rapidly.

“Everything changes, and that can be difficult at times. Keeping an eye on payables and receivables and still trying to set a vision for what we want to look like five years from now. We are driven by a need to continually improve – to be faster, more cost effective, and to find better solutions for our clients. So, the fact that we’re in an ever-changing world compels us and gives us the opportunity to update day to day, constantly.”

Another seemingly seamless transition is from work to home. He and his wife, Sara, and their two sons, Oscar and Henry, live on what had been Sara’s grandparents’ dairy farm.

“I’m truly blessed,” said Hathaway. “Going home is like a mini-vacation. It pulls me out of work mode.”

Soft touch management

WITH NO PRIOR MANAGEMENT EXPERIENCE or training, Hathaway has built a staff of seven professional employees, a feat that many small business owners would look upon with envy. What is his management style?

“As much as possible,” he explained, “I want to let my team know what my expectations are. But I hire people for their skills. They’re better at their jobs than I am, so I then try to get out of their way.

“I try to hire the right people, and that also means people who can work with me. But mostly I need to find people who can understand the expectations and who can get the job done and do it really well.”

He also believes in planning, though it’s important to be flexible. When starting BrownBoots, he planned carefully.

“I planned to work out of my home, mostly because I could control overhead and cash flow. Having a business plan helps when making a decision. Still, plans can only take you so far,” he added, pointing out that it’s important for plans to keep pace with change and growth.

Suggestions to owners

EVERYBODY IS DISCOVERING the need to invest in electronic marketing. What advice does Hathaway have for business owners?

“A lot of people get caught up in all the things that can be done and forget about what should be done,” he said. “We try to back them up and help them look at the Web and social media as just another marketing tool.”

One of the points Hathaway stresses is that there are so many choices for social networking – such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, for example – that a business must be selective.

“You don’t have to do all of them,” he pointed out, “but the ones you do, do well. Don’t put up animation just because you can. Don’t be on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn just because you can. You need to decide who your audience is and then decide the best way to reach them.”

The bottom line

IT HAS BEEN A FAST-PACED 10 years for Hathaway and BrownBoots, and he seems to love every minute of it.

“My only complaint is that sometimes I have too much of a good thing,” he said.

And he admits there are times when he is surprised by all that has taken place in the last 10 years.

“Overall, the notion that at some point you wake up and realize that the responsibilities you have to family, employees and community are overwhelming and very daunting. But the flip side is that you get to see the impact of all you do – supporting family, fostering growth in employees, and seeing a community grow stronger.”

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. For more information, contact John at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.