Maveriq Profile: Kim Ziesemer & Heath Meyer, ZM Communications
When starting a business one of the most important elements is working with the right people. Whether you're a self starter, or part of a team, eventually you're going to need to form relationships to grow your dream. One such relationship has been developing between two professional public relations executives in San Diego for a number of years. Working as colleagues at Qualcomm in years past, they have since launched their own company and are navigating the waters of entrepreneurship as an exemplary model of business partnership. They are Kim Ziesemer and Heath Meyer of San Diego's ZM Communications. I had the pleasure of meeting them last weekend and was able to learn a lot. Here's how the conversation went.
What is ZM Communications, and what services does the company provide?
Heath: ZM Communications is a Marketing Communications firm, which primarily supports clients in the technology sector. We also work with clients in the nonprofit, consumer, and general lifestyle categories. Our sweet spots include media and analyst relations, events, digital media, content development, and editorial strategy.
Kim: We work with a mix of larger established corporate companies like Samsung, TCL (The Creative Life), and Kyocera, and smaller startup companies. A lot of the work we do is driving positive media coverage, getting our client’s names out into the world, building brand awareness, and additional efforts to publicize their products.
How did the two of you come to form your business partnership?
Kim: We actually started doing this on the side at our previous jobs. We were both working at Qualcomm, and we started it as a general partnership for the first 6 months or so. Then we changed the structure to an LLC that’s taxed as an S-Corp. That change was made per the advice of our tax accountant. We did that when we knew we were going to be working on this full-time, and that we were going to be a more established company. We wanted to switch to being an LLC because it was the right move legally.
Heath: One of the great things about the relationship that Kim and I have is that we both came into this knowing that we wanted it to be split down the middle 50/50...for it to be an equal partnership. I think that's a critical piece if you’re going to go into your own business and have a partner. You need to put together a structure and an agreement that you can both work under. I think the fact that we both agree that the business is split 50/50 is the only way to make it work for us.
What was it that you saw in each other that made you want to go into business together?
Heath: Kim and I worked together on the same team for about five years at Qualcomm. We’re both from Wisconsin so we share that bond as well. I've always had respect for her work ethic, her intelligence, and her ability to think and work on the fly. As I started to think about having my own business she was at the top of the list as a potential partner.
It's critical to find someone that you respect. I also spend more time with her than I do with anyone else. You have to like the person you go into business with, and Kim is just a really good human being.
Kim: We joke sometimes that having a business partnership is like being in a marriage. You have your joint financial account, you have your vision of the future, and it’s your baby that you’re growing together. You need to have those lines of communication open. You need to enjoy the person that you're working with and you need to respect them as well.
Heath is amazing! I really appreciate the fact that he pushes us to grow, keep learning, and trying new challenges. That's so important in what we’re doing. He does that in his personal life, and brings that energy to the business. Having someone that you admire and want to learn with is really key.
Heath: Also, when you have an issue it's important to have an open dialogue. We've certainly had some hard conversations and disagreements about working with particular clients, going after a piece of business, or how we're going to structure something. The great thing about our relationship is that we’re so open with each other. We can say to each other, “It’s been a long day. Let’s get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll talk about it in the morning.” Not letting issues fester is a critical part of the business. We require a direct line of communication with each other.
Having already been at a large established company, and experiencing that stability, what was your inspiration for going into business for yourselves?
Heath: It's funny... If you would have asked me 3 years ago if I would have ever considered starting a business, I would have said “no.” I sort of pitched it to Kim as a joke. I knew that she had just finished her MBA program and that it was something she was interested in as well. She said, “We need to talk about this.” One conversation led to another and all of a sudden we were both very excited, and writing a business plan together.
An old colleague of mine from my days back in Chicago had reached out about needing some freelance support, and that work sort of fell into our lap. It just felt like the universe was putting things on our runway as we were getting ready to take off. It rolled out very naturally.
Kim: For me it was a little different. I had always wanted to own my own company. That was part of the reason I went back to business school. I had a couple of false starts, tried a couple things that didn't work. I was opening a juice shop in my husband’s gym, working on a couple of apps with some other friends, and a number of things that weren't really making sense.
When Heath approached me it made a lot of sense. This is our core competency. It’s something we know we’re really good at, and that we can do well. I think once you find the path that you’re supposed to be on, things do happen pretty naturally and pretty seamlessly. It felt serendipitous. We had the conversation, this piece of business fell in our lap, and from there it was off to the races. We just kind of took off!
Now that you’ve been in business for a while how do you go about sourcing and qualifying clients?
Heath: 90% of the business we have, and the business that we are pursuing, is through referrals. Old colleagues, old bosses, mentors, and friends have provided us with the connections that we’ve needed to continue to move forward. We've been fortunate enough that we’ve not had to go out and do a ton of business development, and we’ve had a lot of people refer their colleagues and their business partners to us. It's happened very organically, but we do want to expand outside of tech, which is where most of our business has been.
We’ve worked to identify opportunities for expansion. Recently we took on a pro bono client in order to support our growth outside of the technology sector. We're going to continue to look for those opportunities and pursue them as they make sense for our business.
Kim: To add one more thing about how we source clients; we really make sure the culture is a good fit. We've actually turned down some clients that are kind of in our sweet spot because we don't feel like we could provide them with the right level of service, we don’t vibe with them just right, or they’re requiring more than we think we can handle at the time. We’ve made sure to look very carefully and ensure that it's a good cultural fit for the both of us.
How do you ensure quality in the services you provide?
Heath: I think there's a learning curve to understanding how you keep your quality of service very high. A critical component to that is learning when to say “no”. It's something that we've struggled with in our first year of doing business. It actually took us saying “yes” to a couple of things that we shouldn't have to determine when to say “no,” and when to push back.
There’s only so many hours in the day. Kim and I are very honest with each other about what we want our work-life balance to be, and how much we're going to take on before it starts to become too much and quality of service declines. It’s something that we’re going to continue to figure out as we move the business along. There’s really not necessarily a clear cut answer.
Kim: We also have an interesting and scalable business model. Right now everyone that's on the team, outside of us, is contracted. So we can very easily scale up or down. We have about eight people on the team that are not full-time employees. They freelance for us. So if we get a really big project that comes in we can tap into them and make sure that we have the resources available to deliver. In addition, they have a mix of skill sets, which allows us to staff up and present the right team for the work.
Heath and I are actively involved in every single account. We make sure that we’ve provided the right fit of resources for the work. I think our sweet spot right now is six or seven clients. If we grow beyond that I think we’ll need to bring in another full-time team member.
Be patient. Let the chips fall where they may, and make your next move based on where those chips fall.
What percent of your time is spent on working with existing clients vs. growing the company with new business?
Kim: Heath and I have very similar personalities. We're both big idea people, and we love driving the strategy of the business for our clients and ourselves. We also have a really strong operations person who runs our finances, logistics, and manages all of our contractors. That’s really key in freeing up our time so we can continue to think of the vision for the company as well as service our clients directly. I would say that 80% of our time is spent servicing our current clients while 20% is new business, networking, and pitching new people.
Heath: I think that we're at an interesting inflection point with the business as well. Over the next year or so we’ll really be fleshing out what our plan for growth is, how big we want the company to become, and whether or not we want to bring on full-time employees. I love what we have right now and what we've been able to build in a relatively short amount of time. We've got friends, mentors, and old colleagues that we stay in touch with who asked, “Are you guys going to grow?” or “When are you going to start hiring people.”
We’re in no rush. We want the business to continue to move along as steadily as it has. That would be one piece of advice I would give to anyone who is getting into starting their own company. Be patient, let chips fall where they may, and make your next move based on where those chips fall.
Kim: Another thing about hiring the full-time employee is that we want to make sure we’re being careful. It can change the dynamic of the company quite a bit, and change the culture. So we want to make sure it's a really good fit, and someone who's really driven. They’ll need to share our vision on where we're headed and be able to help us get there.
Do you have any existing partnerships with other agencies? How do you establish manage them?
Heath: We were fortunate enough to have a relationship with a sister agency that helped to launch our company. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get ZM Communications off the ground. An old colleague of mine in Chicago that I worked with years ago, owns her own agency. That agency doesn’t offer the same services that we offer, and reached out to us to act as their public relations and communications arm. We’ve been fortunate enough to have them funnel a lot of business to us.
That partnership was critical to us launching the business. Since they offer services that we don’t, we’ve been able to tap into that team as well. It really fits into the business model that Kim explained a bit earlier, where we’re not in need of additional full-time employees that we’d need to be taking care of. It’s worked out very well for us.
Both in business, and in personal life, where do you draw creative inspiration from?
Heath: I draw a lot of creative inspiration from Kim. I’ll often have a ton of ideas going through my head and I can’t tell you how many times I’ll text or IM her with them. It starts as a brainstorm, and then we’ll be moving down the path.
I also come up with a lot of crazy ideas when I’m out running or when I’m in the pool swimming. Working out and fitness is something that we’re both passionate about. I’ve been doing triathlons for ten years. It’s always been a haven for me to go out, get on my bike, and just head somewhere else. That’s when I can focus and think about what it is I want to do next. I can come up with new concepts for our current clients or think of a piece of business that I want to go after. It’s been an incredible outlet for me, and a place that I draw inspiration from.
Other mentors as well. Kim and I have been so lucky to surround ourselves with some amazing, smart, intelligent business people over the course of our careers. Sometimes just sitting around having coffee and keeping an open mind can produce meaningful results.
Those are three areas where I draw my creative inspiration from.
Kim: I agree with those, and I think Heath’s last point about networking is very important. We still travel up to San Francisco once a month, and meet with a lot of our previous teammates and colleagues up there. There’s so much innovation happening in Silicon Valley. We want to hear what’s going on as well as what people are up to. It’s so cool to see what people are doing in the space.
We also keep a finger on the pulse of our industry by reading a lot of news, and seeing what other creative campaigns are out there.
Then there’s the other things I do like going to concerts, running, Crossfit. My husband owns a gym where I’ll workout. Travel is also huge for me. I love going out and exploring the world. I find so much inspiration from other cultures, and how other people are living their lives. Getting out in the world as much as possible and living your life allows inspiration to come from everywhere.
What is your “Why” factor for being in business?
Kim: I love having something that I own. The feeling of it being my passion project, which I’m driving forward, and creating something exactly the way I want it to be created. We’re picking who we want to work with, in control of our own destiny, and producing something bigger than ourselves. I also love that we constantly get to learn and grow within the agency. We’re always learning another industry, learning another business, and seeing how other people structure things. There are tons of awesome new products or exciting things going on. It’s very inspirational to keep meeting new people while getting out there to learn more.
Heath: This “baby” of ours has opened so many doors, and I agree with what Kim has said. I think waking up in the morning, being able to set your own agenda, and do what you really want to do that day is super empowering. Having choices is what gives you power in life. Anything that’s worth pursuing is going to be high risk. There’s going to be some fear there, but if you can overcome that fear the reward is amazing.
I love surrounding myself with really amazing people including Kim. I love being able to work collaboratively with our clients, our team, and other people in the industry.
Where do you turn when you want to self-educate?
Heath: In the communications and marketing industry it’s very important to keep your finger on the pulse of what big brands are doing, and how they are expressing themselves. For me it’s fun to get up in the morning and read the news. I like to see what interesting stories brands are creating. Looking at industry trade publications like Advertising Age or PR Week where you can see case studies of the work that other people are executing is useful. It’s really important for us to stay fresh while keeping our ideas creative, new, and different. So we need to have an understanding of what other big brands are doing.
Kim: I think what we mentioned before about networking and seeing what your colleagues or peers are doing is important too. Especially people in different industries. It’s cool to draw inspiration from friends in unrelated areas, like doctors or nurses in the medical field or friends in the restaurant industry. You ask yourself, “What kind of activities are they doing, and what platforms are they using?”
I also subscribe to content marketing newsletters that have many ideas. Sometimes I’ll have time to read them. Sometimes I won’t. It’s just good to have a daily reminder with information you can reference. One of the subscriptions I have is to “Think With Google.” They send a daily thought and are doing so many unique and innovative things. There are people like Seth Godin, and other gurus, there are podcasts or webinars, there’s an endless supply of resources. It comes down to picking the ones that are right for you.
What advice do you have for self-starters?
Kim: Just do it! The key is to start. No matter how small. It’s easy to overthink things, and believe that you need to be perfect before you get out there. You really don’t need to spend a lot of money or time. You can get started and just see where it takes you. I think what you’ll find is that your path shifts from what you expected. You’ll need to be open to those different influences and opportunities that come your way.
Heath: It’s kind of like having a child. No one can do it alone. So surrounding yourself with an army of people who support you, love you, and build you up all while giving you constructive criticism or feedback is vital. Make sure to have a network that lifts you up. A network that helps you move forward.
There’s going to be an element of fear whenever you get started. Especially when your livelihood depends on what you’ve created. You want people in your life that are going to help you overcome the fear and do it anyway.
Where can we find and follow you?
Heath: Our company website is www.zmcommunications.com. We’re both also very active on Twitter, engaging with reporters. You can follow me on Twitter @ironman_heath26.
Kim: I’m on Twitter @kziese and would love to hear from you.
We want to thank Kim and Heath for allowing us to speak with them about their entrepreneurial journey. If you have any PR or Communications needs for your business we highly recommend contacting them. We'd love to hear what you think about ZM Communications in the comments below!