+1 Entrepreneur Interview: Crown Jewel Marketing

+1 Entrepreneur Interviews celebrate Fort Wayne area entrepreneurs who deserve an upvote. This post celebrates Crown Jewel Marketing, a Fort Wayne marketing firm that helps small businesses and nonprofits connect with their customers.

The People

Justin Sheehan said “No, thanks” to an excellent full time job offer with an excellent company so that he could grow Crown Jewel Marketing. Great call, Justin!

I met Justin when he was in high school (at my alma mater, New Haven High School — Go Bulldogs!). He was starting his second business, a video production business named Crown Jewel. Much time has passed since then and Crown Jewel has morphed a bit, but Justin remains the same — a self aware, confident and proficient, young entrepreneur.

Unconventional and Entrepreneurial

Justin has always walked his own road, making many decisions that some would think unconventional — but I would call entrepreneurial.

He did dabble in college, but he left early on, not even close to a degree. Does that mean he wasn’t “college material”? Nope. A successful student and high school Student Council President, he turned down a full scholarship to Indiana University or Purdue University. Against convention, he felt that he could grow the company he had started his senior year, that college would just delay growing the business, and that Fort Wayne was an ideal town in which to do just that.

Newly married at age 20, Justin decided he needed something more secure than the two part time gigs he was working in addition to the developing work of Crown Jewel. So, when a friend referred him to Ash Brokerage, he took a job there producing video. But he did it his way — he turned down a full time offer and arranged a part time (but secure) position that would leave him time to develop Crown Jewel.

At one point he considered leaving Ash because his Crown Jewel clientele had grown. His wife. Alethea, asked him to prove Crown Jewel could make sustainable income. Although it was growing, Justin couldn’t prove sustainability, so he stayed with Ash. Nice self-aware move, Justin! Staying led to an introduction to what would later become Crown Jewel’s first sustainable client, Ambassador Enterprises.

The Business

When Justin was in high school, then-principal of NHHS Greg Mohler would welcome students by saying, “Welcome to New Haven, the Crown Jewel of Indiana!” The name stuck and Justin adopted it for his business.

Crown Jewel went through some changes before it arrived at today’s version of the company. At first, it was purely a video production company. Justin remembers the first $1,000 video production project he was given by Bob Nelson — and how as a high school he was amazed at the ability to make SO MUCH money to do something he loved!

Justin couldn’t wait to get started on Day One in his first Crown Jewel office, so he improvised a desk!

The company dabbled in other work (websites and such), and Justin remembers a conversation he had with me (of all people) in a front conference room at Founders, the coworking space I co-founded. I asked him, “What does Crown Jewel do? What’s your identity?” Justin says today that he was struck with the fact that, “I couldn’t answer! I didn’t know!” That set him on a year-long path of discovery that resulted in the formation of today’s Crown Jewel, a uniquely positioned marketing company.

Today, he knows that answer. Crown Jewel is a marketing company. But not just any old marketing agency. I love Justin’s definition of marketing (or at last his brand of marketing): “connecting people to businesses — by storytelling.” He applies this with a target market focus on small businesses and nonprofits.

Why Marketing? Why Small Businesses and Nonprofits?

Justin loves to tell stories, and sees himself as here on earth to make a positive difference. As he says, “I can personally make the biggest difference by helping my clients and their clients to make a difference. The vehicle to do that today is marketing.” He continues, “It works. I can see the results of our and their work. I see people being helped.”

Crown Jewel’s approach or distinct value proposition is all about connection, service, and making a difference. Here’s how Justin puts it.

We connect the right people with the right nonprofits and small businesses. We do that by a three-step process (Launch, Grow, Engage). At the bottom line, we offer our clients clarity — via both strategy and execution — so that they can serve or make a difference. We help them make profit because profit enables you to serve — it is the means, not the end.

Growing a Company

In 2016, Crown Jewel made some big changes. First, they switched from working with freelancers to bringing on their first permanent contractor, Brian Menzie. True to Justin’s free thinking form, the people that Crown Jewel employs can arrange their own relationship — contractor, employee, full time, part time. Conner Mullett and Zach Ziino joined in 2017. [note — others work with Crown Jewel, but these three folks just happened to be in the office as I wrote this, so they share the photo limelight).

Left to right — Brian, Conner, and Zach — part of the Crown Jewel crew

Secondly, Justin committed to the StoryBrand process. He invested $10K to become StoryBrand certified. The investment was a huge challenge for a relatively young company, but the knowledge paid off. I can personally attest to that — the StoryBrand interactions my Farnsworth Fund gig has had with them were highly insightful and invaluable for Farnsworth. And that has indeed translated (via Crown Jewel’s execution) into connecting the Farnsworth fund with the right people— our engagement has grown dramatically due to their work.

Justin and I posing for a Farnsworth Fund promo pic

Justin sets themes for years. 2017 was the year of “Me to We”. They focused on growing their team and moving away from being dependent on Justin. In fact, he did an experiment. He spent a full month visiting his family in the Philippines while Crown Jewel ran without him — and the team pulled through without a hitch.

2018’s theme was “Prepare for Rapid Growth.” That preparation took three forms.

  1. Setting up systems, like financial systems.
  2. Acquiring sustainable customers [I should mention that once a client experiences Crown Jewel’s services, they don’t want to leave — repeat business is their norm].
  3. Hiring an account manager. They particularly wanted to hire a lady for this position to demonstrate diversity. Although their team already includes both ladies and men, the men are more visible to the outside world, and Justin felt that needed to change. As I write this, that hire is imminent. [Update — a few days ago, Jess Tebben joined Crown Jewel].

As his company has grown, Justin has become most proud of the impact his clients (or their clients) have made — and that Crown Jewel has had a part in making. He also pinches himself when he thinks of the awesome clients they’ve been able to work with in just a few short years, from the nonprofits and small businesses making impact to a producer from Disney.

The Future

Justin is working on a two year plan with three goals.

First, he plans more hires to firm up the operations of the existing business.

Secondly, once the existing business is sustainable on its own, he will turn his attention to creating new complementary products or services. More specifically, he has plans to create marketing software for marketers. He sees an opportunity to simplify software that is typically “too feature ridden” and create a suite of simplified essential tools for marketers. If you guess that he has already created some of these tools and uses them privately at Crown Jewel, you’d be right.

Third, he feels that a set of educational products built around Crown Jewels’s Launch, Grown, Engage platform would help existing clients be more effective and perhaps even reach a wider market and help them to make a difference.

Locals on Their Radar

No surprise, Justin admires locals who march to their own tune and make a difference at the personal, client, or employee level.

Personal impact . Marshall White of Unity Performing Arts Foundation, “Taught me how to be a good person”, says Justin. Answer your [damn] phone, return emails, be the person you’d want to work with or be around. Marshall is well known for the UPAF Voices of Unity events and performances he produces— as well he should be. But, the under-told story about Marshall is how he is directly and personally affecting the UPAF kids and other people around him to be better human beings.

Client impact. Nora Stewart of HearCare Audiology expanded a private practice to include a regional multi-site practice, a nonprofit, a coop, and mission trips — all focused on the passion of giving the “Gift of Hearing” to deserving people locally and around the world. They give back immensely and make a difference all across the globe.

Employee impact. Mason Brandenberger of Brandenberger Tree Care Professionals invests time and resources in building a solid and nurturing employee culture. What other companies that cut trees for a living have you heard of that spend time reading books together? To Justin, who also invests in activities that directly build employees and culture (but might look to outsiders as frivolous expenditures), that sort of activity comes naturally.

Here are a few more locals that Justin admires, along with the sound bite sized lessons he learned from them.

  • Greg Mohler — Just do it
  • Bob Nelson — Give people opportunities
  • Tim Smith — Make money

Advice to Startup Founders

Three things — simple, short, wise, and important.

  1. It is much more risky for you to have one client than having a business with multiple clients.
  2. It is even more risky to have a job — the ultimate form of one client, but where you are at risk of the employer’s whim.
  3. You are in the best position to start and grow a business through its ups and downs when you are young, maybe live at home, and don’t yet have the responsibilities or expenses of a family.