As firm believers in a tech-led economic development strategy, and as managers of a network of business incubators across the Coachella Valley (the Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Indio iHubs), we serve innovators. Since mid-March, CVEP has made the shift to delivering virtual business services.
We know that in order to serve innovators well, we also have to be pretty innovative. In our quest to offer innovative strategies and solutions to Coachella Valley entrepreneurs and to our iHub portfolio companies, we periodically partner with private industry. While CVEP staff always stands at the ready to counsel entrepreneurs, partnering with outside experts allows our clients to benefit from specialized advice in nearly any niche. These pro bono services to our portfolio companies add depth to the guidance we already give. Recently, we partnered with James Mowdy of BSPOKE, and our iHub portfolio companies have raved about their experiences. We asked James to share his experiences about his unique style of consulting, called Brand Therapy, and what it’s been like working with startups while we’re all socially distant.
Face-to-Face, but Virtual
CVEP: Brand Therapy is a pretty unique type of consulting. What’s the story there? How did you discover there was a need for this kind of guidance?
James Mowdy: BSPOKE, which I founded in 2011, works with individuals, teams and the C-suite across a variety of communications, strategy and training briefs. We specialize in social media, brand strategy, website UX, pitch deck development, executive speaking engagements and bespoke brand experiences. In 2018, I launched Brand Therapy via IG video and FaceTime as an easy, no-fuss way to consult with startup founders and small biz owners. I’d previously used FaceTime to conduct brand coaching sessions with clients in Arizona, New Mexico and New York. These were very hands-on experiences, requiring both myself and clients to work as a team, which translated into achieving various goals or producing deliverables in between meetings, allowing us to move forward with a given project or initiative. This worked for some clients, however, others were incredibly busy and not always able to get things done before our next meeting, which sometimes led to their feeling as though they’d let themselves and/or our coaching process down. Ultimately, I realized that these coaching experiences could be unnecessarily pressurized, transforming me into a professor waiting for his students’ work (or worse, another boss).
Over the course of 2017, I began a process of retiring these clients once we reached a natural stopping point. I then began developing a new format for virtual consulting, one that put clients in the driver’s seat, on demand and at their pace. That’s when I fully connected with the dynamic of a therapy session. Having seen a therapist at various times over the course of my adult life, I knew that no therapist has an agenda waiting for their patients when they arrive. Instead, a therapist allows patients to discuss what’s pressing or important to them in that moment, gently guiding conversation, asking questions and providing ideas intended to help patients with their immediate needs, while also providing a wide berth for patients to arrive at unique insights and breakthroughs when they’re ready to do that. In much the same way, one-to-one Brand Therapy via Instagram Video and FaceTime is where small business owners, startup founders and creators find a confidential, virtual sounding board to discuss brand narrative, brand strategy, current challenges or new projects and initiatives.
CVEP: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working with startups?
JM: My first experience with any sort of drop-in model was at WeWork SOMA on Second Street in San Francisco (2014-17). It remains my gold standard co-working experience, wonderful people. In 2016, I began BSPOKE Office Hours exclusively for the WeWork community in our building. What an education! I learned first-hand that anything could happen when I put myself in a room with fellow entrepreneurs looking for help. Perhaps this is when the therapy idea first germinated? I realized that just like myself, people coming to see me about their startups and small businesses were simultaneously filled with great ideas, uncertainty, passion, stubbornness, angst and endless drive. It was also a mirror into my own experience growing BSPOKE, i.e. sometimes feeling hopeless, drowning in a sea of business development while working hard to exceed current client expectations.
I hadn’t set out with this goal, but office hours became my golden opportunity to build empathy and trust based on shared experience. Sometimes I needed to tell founders that they were too close to a particular issue to see it objectively – “you might want to consider hiring an experienced tech CMO to help you with this, here’s why…” Sometimes there were tears (from men and women alike), but the fact that we even arrived at that place indicated the trust my fellow WeWorkers were putting in me, a gift I will always cherish. Then and now, when discussing someone’s dreams, visions, and hopes for success, I always put myself in the other person’s shoes. When I do this, people usually become more responsive and we’re able to grok things in a collaborative way – I certainly don’t know everything, but I dovetail off what Brand Therapy clients share, which spurs new ideas inside them and so forth – a constructive business conversation in a safe space. This also opens the door to discussing what a path forward could look like, even if that means some challenges are best addressed by a business lawyer specializing in startups, for example.
CVEP: Of course, everything is different in the age of COVID-19. But is there anything unusual about working with startups during a time when seemingly everything is “unprecedented”?
JM: As COVID-19 began to turn the world sideways, I realized how small businesses and startups around the world were hungry for guidance during unprecedented times, and perhaps with little to no income to pay for it. As the planet realized its options were limited, everyone turning to their screens for assistance, education, work, play and the primary avenue for business, I saw an opportunity for Brand Therapy that hadn’t previously existed. With face to face meetings out of the question, the offer of a pro bono virtual session via Instagram or FaceTime created immediate interest and uptake.
Brand Therapy isn’t therapy, per se. But given the uncertainty of COVID-19’s long-term impacts, and the increased stress on founders and small business owners to simply remain viable, I’m noticing that Brand Therapy experiences are producing a more pronounced therapeutic effect amongst participants, which is wonderful. If being that objective, empathetic sounding board for people, including those served by CVEP, is helping participants feel better, more optimistic and re-energized, my mission is accomplished.
Virtual Business Services for Entrepreneurs
Several clients of the Palm Springs iHub have already benefitted from pro bono sessions with BSPOKE: companies like eTagz.net and Qwiktarp. If you’re a Coachella Valley entrepreneur interested in booking a Brand Therapy session, contact us with a request for general business assistance: be sure to specify in the “About You” section that you’re interested in Brand Therapy. We’re proud to offer Brand Therapy and other virtual business services to startups and entrepreneurs based in Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Indio, and unincorporated areas of the Coachella Valley.