Kelly Smith considers herself a matchmaker. She develops marketing strategies for her clients to find their clients from a place of authenticity.
Smith owns Willow & Oak Business Solutions, a marketing company primarily for professional services-based business owners, such as attorneys, therapists, financial advisors, real estate agents, and executive coaches. She launched the business in 2017 from her Maltby home, outside Woodinville, after seeing a need among solo entrepreneurs trying to bring their ideas to fruition but not having the know-how, wherewithal, or resources to find their clients or customers.
Smith approaches the work from the mindset of realness, humility, and generosity.
“My philosophy is that marketing is a generous act of connecting people that need each other — it’s building the bridge that connects people to each other,” Smith said. “People need my clients’ services, and it’s my job to ensure that they can find what they need.”
She markets from a place of abundance: that there’s enough business for clients without using marketing tactics built around urgency or scarcity. Calls to “buy now” or “act now” have their place, but she believes in helping clients market their real selves, including sharing who they are and why they got into their line of work, not manufacturing messages they think people want to hear.
When businesses do the latter, it becomes difficult to market them, she said.
“Business owners don’t need to create a story in order to differentiate in the marketplace, because the truth of why they’re in business and what got them there in the first place is all the differentiation they need to be successful,” Smith said. “People want the truth.”
Businesses can grow and flourish without the hustle and grind of focusing on differentiation and competition, Smith said.
“When you focus on your story and what makes you unique, that’s the thing that resonates; that’s the thing that makes people want to work with you,” she said. “It’s not about focusing on or copying what others in your industry are doing. People want you because of who you are and why you do what you do. I think the authenticity, the confidence, the humility, the drive — those are the components that make for a successful business owner and a successful business.”
That’s how she runs Willow & Oak.
Her approach apparently resonated with Women Business Owners (WBO), an organization for women entrepreneurs that last fall gave her one its five Women Business Owners of the Year awards. She won in the category of solo business owner.
Smith was honored to win and praised WBO — founded in 1979 and offering members education, mentorship, events, and more — calling the organization instrumental in her entrepreneurial journey.
Smith started Willow & Oak after spending about nine years as an executive assistant to the vice president of operations at Genie Industries, a manufacturer of boom and scissor lifts and other lift equipment, whose main operations are in Washington state, including Redmond and Moses Lake. Genie is a brand of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Terex Corp., a global manufacturer of aerial work platforms and materials processing machinery that posted $3.1 billion in net sales in 2020.
While there, she tapped her communications skills and degrees in English literature from Seattle University and marketing from Bellevue College, creating internal communications to drive continuous improvement.
She loved the job, her co-workers, and the leaders at Genie.
“I learned so much from them about what it means to be a servant leader and what it means to be humble at the top,” Smith said.
She left to spend more time with her young boys, then 1½ and 3 (now 6 and 8). Later, Genie’s VP of engineering asked whether she’d help build a marketing plan for a nonprofit with which he was involved. She accepted and realized she was on to something.
“I thought … this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. … That was the catalyst to start the business,” Smith said. We caught up with Smith, 40, to learn more.
How did you come up with the name Willow & Oak?
It’s the (Aesop’s) fable, the Willow and the Oak. In business and in life, we have to be strong and have our roots dug deep, but we also need to be able to bend and flex. So it’s a juxtaposition of the two, knowing when to utilize each character trait.
What makes Willow & Oak different from your competitors?
I look at competition a lot differently than most people in my industry, and I don’t really even categorize it as competition — and I coach my clients on this, as well. There is nobody that does what I do in the way that I do it. The strategy, the social media management, the focus and energy around creating momentum for your business, is all built around values, education, and experiences. This lends to the very specific way that I execute a marketing strategy.
I don’t really believe in competition; we’re all just doing things differently. We’re all trying to help people at the end of the day. Nobody in my industry is going to help this solo entrepreneur in the way that I can, but they may offer similar services executed differently. The processes that I’ve put in place to bring in to create an engaged audience, to drive qualified leads, and to elevate the perception of the brand, I’ve proven those out over the years. And even prior to starting Willow & Oak, I have vetted out processes of what really matters to people and what really resonates.
And you help largely with their online presence, such as social media?
There are two ways to work with Willow & Oak. One way is to do a strategy session — and if you are an entrepreneur who really wants to keep the keys to the kingdom and do your own marketing, this is where we make your yearlong plan and you execute it. You learn the tactics you need to do this year in order to achieve your business goals. You take that plan, and then off you go.
My monthly clients start with the strategy session, and then my team and I execute it for them. We create all of the social media posts based on the topic and the content that we’ve decided is the most relevant. We produce the email newsletters based on the cadence that we’ve decided in that strategy session. We handle all of the market research. We handle the editing of and publishing the original thought leadership.
I teach my clients what I like to call reservoir marketing … where they come up with their own original piece of thought leadership — and if they like to write, maybe it’s a blog; if they like to talk, maybe it’s a podcast episode … but something needs to come directly from them in their voice. They create that, and then I polish it, I edit it, and then my team and I do the technical work of posting it to the proper platform. Their social media and email marketing are derived from their original piece of thought leadership. This is called inbound marketing, also known as content marketing, and it’s what I specialize in.
Outbound marketing is disruption marketing. It’s the commercial that you see in the middle of your TV show; it’s the advertisement that pops up when you’re trying to read that blog post; it’s the sidebar ad on a website. … There’s an appropriate time and place for a business to have an ad presence and have an outbound marketing strategy, and we do that, but it’s usually about 10 percent of what we do. … My company focuses on inbound marketing because we know we can build an audience of people who are organically interested in the topic, and we don’t have to fight for their attention.
In the simplest language, you’re helping your clients be found in that massive digital world out there?
You mentioned your team. It’s more than you at Willow & Oak?
In July, I brought on a team member, Lauren, and in February, I brought on another, Alex. Both women live in Texas and are contractors. They do great work, but whatever my team produces for my clients always goes through me; nobody hits the publish button in my business except me.
It sounds like your business is on a nice growth trajectory.
Yes, it is. I started out simply wanting to help a couple people and make some money for my family on the side, but I am absolutely loving … being a source of meaningful work and income to people who have the desire and drive to help other business owners rise up. And so bringing on Lauren and Alex was a really big change for me. It was a big mindset shift. The business is healthy and well-positioned to achieve the growth plan to double my business this year (in revenue). There’s big things in the works for Willow & Oak down the road.
You mentioned you’ve got a couple boys who were home for 11 months during the pandemic and whom you home-schooled until February, when they returned to school.
The fact that I was able to grow the business the way that we did with them being home is something I never thought would be possible, and it really just opened up my mind to expand my thinking about what is possible. I had to compartmentalize the times I worked. It made me a better business owner. It made me a better mom. It forced me to put boundaries in place about when I worked and when I didn’t, and when I was available and when I was not. That’s a lesson in and of itself that I’m so grateful for.
What’s your husband, Jayme, do?
He’s a lean change agent (at Technical Glass Products in Snoqualmie). We’re a great team (sharing family roles).
What’s your favorite hangout in or around Woodinville?
If we want to go out for breakfast or brunch, we would go to The Maltby Cafe. It’s amazing. Other restaurants we enjoy include The Pizza Coop, Purple, and The Commons in Woodinville, and The Cottage in Bothell. I also enjoy strolling the aisles of Barnes & Noble in Woodinville.
When you’re not working, you like to be outside?
I really enjoy mountain biking and hiking, and skiing and running. If I can be outside, that’s the best place for me to be.