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Margaret Wolfson Of River and Wolf On How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

Persistence is the fuel that allows one to keep going when the inevitable obstacles appear. It is faith in action.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Wolfson.

Margaret is the founder and chief creative of River + Wolf. Before launching River + Wolf in 2014, she worked for more than a decade as a verbal identity consultant/creative director, developing names, stories, and marketing messages for new and established companies throughout the world. She has led projects and developed names for clients such as Yum China, Coca Cola, Bangkok Bank, Calvin Klein, Target, Unilever, and Sephora, to mention a few of hundreds. She also lectures on brand naming and has appeared as a guest speaker at such places as the Harvard Club in New York City, New York University, Columbia University, and in Paris at the Institute Francaise de la Mode and Cinquieme Sens. Margaret has widely contributed to or been quoted in the media, including The Wharton Magazine, New York Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, The New York Times, NBC News, and The Next Web. In 2018 she was selected as a top female entrepreneur by the Huffington Post. Prior to her brand naming career, Margaret was an award-winning author and accomplished artist-entrepreneur with a long history of producing/performing spoken arts concert with global music throughout the world. Margaret has a M.A. in literature and communications from New York University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I have always been fascinated by brand names, an interest that began, I think, when I visited auto showrooms with my father. At that time, he was an English Professor with a focus on 19th century English poetry. Not surprisingly, we often discussed the metaphorical meaning behind the car names. I think this may have prompted my interest in naming. But my original career was as a performing storyteller, not brand naming.

When touring, especially internationally, there is a good amount of down time in hotels and airports. So, I began searching for a way to fill these pockets. My fascination with branding and naming, plus the ability to do naming work remotely, went well with my performing work. After more than a decade of doing both, I decided to focus exclusively on naming. Having built and run my own theater company, my passions were dual — I loved creative work but also the challenge of growing a company. This is what motivated me to launch my own naming agency, River + Wolf, in 2014.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In the beginning, I very much struggled on how to rank with search engines. Receiving high-quality back links, especially as many reputable journals had switched to no follow links, is an arduous, opaque, and often frustrating process. I found the whole thing confusing. And I began to despair — how would our website ever get to the first page?

During this hard ramp up period, I kept two books on my desk. One was Find a Way, by Diane Nyad, the long-distance swimmer, and the other a retelling of an Irish folktale called Brave Margaret. The cover featured a flaming red-haired girl riding on a wild black steed on her way to slay a demon. This image, along with Nyad’s book title and her inspiring storytelling kept me going throughout this challenging period.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One of the comments we routinely receive from clients in conversation or testimonials is River + Wolf’s level of passion and creativity. Our ability to approach naming in so many ways. I believe this skill stems from my own artistic background, as well as the artistic background of many of our consultants. Artists — even those who have transitioned to being full-time creatives — are lateral thinkers. This is an essential quality for naming.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

A close friend of mine runs his family foundation. When he began in this role, his father reminded him to always keep the work “fresh”. I often think of that. To me, keeping things fresh means not falling into habitual ways of thinking, doing, and being. For sure, burn-out comes from doing too much but it’s also the result, I think, of doing too much in the same way. Trying new things, new approaches, and breaking routines — even in small ways — are great ways to avoid burn-out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I can’t say there is a particular person, but rather many — family, friends, teachers, and colleagues. Some helped by example. Others by listening and giving advice. Still others by holding my feet to the fire.

Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

When I think of the difference between a good company and a great company, I am reminded of a line from the medieval Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi’s line in his book, The Rose Garden: “in the sea are riches beyond compare, but if you seek safety it is on the shore.” I would define a “good” company as one that produces quality products or services and provides non-toxic work environment for all. Good companies strive, if not always perfectly, to not add harm to the world. But they never leave the shore.

Great companies, on the other hand, go beyond these things. They possess a restlessness, a questing spirit that sets them apart. They are willing to head out to sea, to the unknown, to find new ways of thinking and doing. But they are not reckless or heedless. They are mindful of those they are bringing along. Great companies may leave the shore’s safety, but they provide those they bring along with lifejackets.

Based on your experience and success, what are the four most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great?

Beyond possessing a questing spirit, I would add these three: passion, persistence, and grace. Without passion — a strong feeling of excitement and enthusiasm — a leader cannot reliably summon the enormous energy required to produce outstanding work. This passion — which at times is calm passion and other times intense — must be felt at every touchpoint; even routine tasks like writing up an agreement or presenting a proposal should be done with passion.

The next thing is persistence. Persistence is the fuel that allows one to keep going when the inevitable obstacles appear. It is faith in action.

The third is grace.

When people lead with grace, the lead from the most evolved part of their beings. Leading with grace is the ability to hear, not just listen; to fix mistakes, not just own them. Above all, people who lead with grace are grateful for the talents and contributions of colleagues, co-workers, and clients. And they freely share this gratitude. Not for the purpose of procuring future sales or spurring team members to produce more output, but because they believe that those who invest their precious energy on behalf of a company deserve this level of respect.

Leading with grace is in inverse proportion to the leadership style of Logan Roy, the Murdoch-like lead character in HBOs hit Succession. He may have built a vast empire, be a billionaire many times over, get the ear of the POTUS, move markets, and be a massive player in the media industry, but his graceless leadership infects his enterprise like a deadly virus. No matter its power or size, his company could never qualify for great.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

I think a truly great business is one that embeds right behavior into everything it does. So, I am not sure every business requires a “social impact angle”. Donating goods or services to worthy causes and organizations is wonderful — more than wonderful, it is very much needed in today’s world. But I think being fair, kind, and supportive of one’s workers, clients, and customers can be a form of “social impact” too. Making the lives of all you engage with more peaceful and joyous through affirming words and actions has a ripple effect. And in some ways, it is more challenging than compartmentalizing good works. It must be in your company’s DNA and performed on a consistent basis, even when your mood may be otherwise.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

The trifecta of passion, persistence, and grace got us through the worst of the pandemic. We also tried to provide discounted rates to start-ups and solopreneurs. Launching a business is always challenging but launching one in a pandemic verges on heroic.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Every company is different, but in the agency world, client engagement is probably one of the most underestimated aspects of our business. It is crucial to really understand what they are saying, what they need, what they want, what they are grappling with. And it isn’t just one quick call. It requires many exchanges over time.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Sincerely being interested in a perspective client and putting the time in to really understand their needs. But the interest must be genuine; it cannot be a strategy or manipulative tool for the purpose of increasing conversation rates.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Beyond doing outstanding work, total investment at every touchpoint is crucial for creating a “wow” experience. Also being prompt in responses and keeping clients informed throughout the entire work engagement.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Underestimating how much time it takes for a new company to take root and grow. Being impatient.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I love this question. I would start a movement or foundation that finds good hearted, mature individuals who have worked incredibly hard but now are ready to turn their energies towards realizing a dream project. I would also like to start a “lending library” of seasoned, wise minds from all over the world. These minds would be available on a one-on-one basis to answer the life questions of young people.

How can our readers further follow you online?

The best is to visit our website, riverandwolf.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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