Sara Helmy, CEO, Tribu (San Antonio, TX)
Sara Helmy is CEO at Tribu (tribe in Latin), a 20-employee digital marketing and branding agency that prides itself on “building tribes for the brands that we serve.” Sara, with a passion for SEO, started the agency ten years ago with about $6,000, no outside funding, no debt . . . and for the first three years, doubled-down, boot-strapped, added things over time, and eventually morphed the agency into a branding powerhouse with close to $3 million in service revenue this year.
Tribu serves a diverse group of clients . . . facilitating government-supported projects (like San Antonio’s 300-year anniversary celebration), B2C (Devils River Whiskey), B2B, and healthcare . . . but most clients have one thing in common: They have high, ambitious growth goals . . . and they want to be disruptive in some sense.
Tribu’s view of “brand” is far broader than having a logo and a website. Sara includes in “brand” the assets a company creates and deploys, the nurturing, the daily “rock pounding,” the tribe growing, the follower building, and the activities compelling potential customers to sign up for email lists. Branding efforts may be for a brand that never existed before or for existing brands that are looking to “reinvent themselves.”
Sara says that branding (and rebranding) are more about identifying and extracting value that is already there, something unique that will resonate with customers, rather than in creating something new that didn’t exist before. The invention part comes in creating a new way to communicate that message.
When the agency works with a new brand, there is more freedom . . . but, without an existing customer base, Sara says, “You’re a little bit more blind.” A brand may think it knows itself, but often, Tribu has to collect data from potential customers and focus groups to show companies how they are “seen.” Sara says “95% of good businesses are going to choose to honor their customers.”
When a company already has an existing customer base, rebranding may be easier because customers will tell you who you are . . . but it is also harder because, if the business direction changes substantially, you risk alienating existing customers who got you to where you are.
In this interview, Sara offers two important business tips:
- Invest in “A” players, because they are the ones who will solve your problems, help navigate, and help your agency grow.
- Plan, nurture, and control your culture . . . the health of your finances will often match the health of your agency culture.
Sara can be reached on her agency’s website at: Wearetribu.com – and from the beginning to this day, the onsite contact form goes straight to her personal mailbox!
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Sara Helmy, CEO at Tribu based in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Sara.
SARA: Thank you for having me, Rob. I’m excited to be here.
ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by introducing us to Tribu? What should we know? What is your specialty?
SARA: Tribu means “tribe” in Latin. We pride ourselves on building tribes for the brands that we serve. More literally, I guess you could consider us a digital marketing and branding agency. We’ve been around since 2011, so this year will be our 10th year in November. We’re very excited about that. In general, that’s Tribu.
We’re a tribe of 20 people today. When we started, we started with about $6,000. No outside funding, no debt. Just doing really good work and climbing ladders. We’re still a small agency. We’ll do probably about $3 million in service revenue this year with our tribe. (That’s what we call our team of 20.) But in 10 years, no outside funding, no debt. That’s just been organic growth by serving a whole bunch of partners we’re really thrilled and excited to have every day.
ROB: Congratulations on 10 years, on $3 million, on 20 people. I’m sure there’s days when that feels like a lot of responsibility. Dig a little deeper with the brands you serve. Is there a typical example you can give us of who you work with, what the scope of the engagement or the range perhaps can look like?
SARA: Absolutely. We’re actually a little bit everywhere when it comes to industry. We don’t have a particular industry niche. But most everybody that we work with has really high and ambitious growth goals, and they want to be disruptive in some sense. So far, for us at times that’s spanned government – it’s a lot of B2C, B2B, healthcare. We’re literally everywhere. What they have in common is they’ve got some project or some initiative that they consider disruptive and they really want to grow it fast.
More specific examples. Devils River Whiskey was one that we worked with for very many years. Travis Park, which is one of the oldest municipal parks in the United States, was one that we rebranded and revamped. When San Antonio turned 300 years old, we helped them put on that celebration. Then we’ll also serve the plastic surgeon who’s got really high ambitious goals, or we’ll partner up with a private equity who buys companies and turns them around and plug in as their marketing partner.
So we’re a little bit everywhere in that sense, but what they all have in common is they want to disrupt and they want to grow very fast.
ROB: It seems like that branding component of what you do – I think a trick with branding agencies can often be the “What next?” I did the brand and then the engagement falls off. It sounds like you have this pairing of people who are using the rebrand as a jumping-off point to get more aggressive overall.
SARA: Yes, I would say that’s pretty accurate. It’s either a ground-up brand that hasn’t existed before, or there’s a big rebrand initiative in there somewhere. One of the things we deal with all the time is that your brand is so much more than a logo and a website. Those are assets that you created, that you smartly deployed, but brands aren’t created just when you create those things. They’re created through nurturing, through pounding the rock every single day, growing a tribe, amassing a following, giving people a compelling reason to sign up for an email list. When we say brand building, we mean so much more down the line than just getting a new website or designing a logo.
ROB: Sure. Brand is also partly who you actually are. It’s who you actually are when you are out in the market. How do you take a client who is looking to rebrand and get past who they think they are or who they think they should be and get to who they actually can be and break through with that?
SARA: I love that question. I think a lot of people think when you’re rebranding or something, you’re creating something new. In actuality, you’re extracting, with a very good strategic understanding, what’s compelling that lives there. A lot of times, a partner or business will come in and tell you all about their brand, all about what they do, all about their history.
I think what we’re doing is inventing the way that’s communicated, but it’s so much more than inventing things to invent things. You’re extracting something that’s there. Typically there’s a differentiator. There’s something unique about them, and it’s just hidden. When we enter a rebrand, or when we decide we’re going to brand something from the ground up for somebody, we’re extracting more than we are inventing what’s valuable there. What is there that would truly resonate with a tribe or an audience? Who is that audience, and where’s the match?
So it’s more extracting. It’s more strategic identifying of those things, and then you build a brand around that – the more traditional, well-known aspects of it, like what it looks like, the tone of voice, the colors and the typography, and our strategy for getting in front of this tribe, or what most people refer to as target audiences.
ROB: Is there an aspect of that that is easier when there’s also an existing customer base? Because in some cases then the customers actually tell you who you are.
SARA: Yeah, it’s easier and harder when there’s an existing customer base, I think. Easier in the sense that you’ve got the best resource ever. You’ve got customers, and exactly what you said, you can ask them and they’ll tell you. Harder in the sense that if the business’s goals are to substantially change, you have to consider the existing customer. You can’t just 180. You’ve got to love the people that got you where you are.
So preserving equity and being mindful in how you do that sometimes makes those circumstances more complex than when you’re starting something at the ground floor and you have a little bit more freedom to work with. But also, you’re a little bit more blind because there’s not a customer base that you can tap into at that point.
ROB: How do you help someone when they have this conception of themselves and there’s a better dimension of themselves that they actually need to be highlighting, because they really can’t inhabit the brand of what they think they are?
SARA: I think you show them. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the digital marketing world and living in the technology we live today. There’s a way to show them. There’s data, where maybe previously marketers had to fly a little bit more blind. It’s super easy these days to ask a question and get a response. You don’t necessarily have to always have a 10- or 15-person, immaculately sourced focus group, conducted very formally. So in that situation, you show them, and at that point you let the business decide. I think 95% of good businesses are going to choose to honor their customers.
ROB: I get it. You mentioned 10 years ago, $6,000 to start; what led up to that moment, though? What led you to say, “I have this $6,000” – maybe you saved it up, maybe you didn’t – “and I’m going to put it on the line to make Tribu happen”? What did that look like?
SARA: What a bootstrap startup, right? I was young. I was 22 years old at the time. My father had passed away, unfortunately, probably two years before that. So I had learned life is short, and I was a little bit less scared of entrepreneurship failure potential as a result. Also, when you’re young, it’s easier to get something off the ground when you consider that you don’t have a mortgage to worry about or a family to feed at that point.
I happened to be working in SEO, and I absolutely love SEO. That’s the service in this world where I got my start. I was fortunate to, at such a young age, be an operations manager for an SEO division inside of an agency. The entrepreneurial itch, the combination of losing my dad and realizing that life is short, finding an industry that I absolutely loved, a field of study I was completely passionate about – it collided.
Also, because I was young, I just didn’t really have that much money. Hello. [laughs] So $6,000 was what I could put in. I was fortunate enough that I had a little bit of a measly extra that I could live off for that first year, really. So it had to work within that year, at least enough to get me to the next year. That was pretty much the backstory of how Tribu started.
ROB: When you’re bootstrapped, it’s a little bit harder to decide those moments when you’re going to actually – you make decisions to invest in the business sometimes, especially in the services thing, no investors. You can take the money out or you can double down on certain aspects of the business. What were some of those bets you made early to invest in particular aspects of the business that were maybe some key decisions?
SARA: In hindsight – I don’t know that I was doing this then; it just seemed like what you had to do when you’re bootstrapped. But I think we doubled down a zillion times. I paid our staff before I ever paid myself. There were several years in Tribu’s early start that I would pull enough out in terms of – I didn’t get a salary. I would distribute enough that I could eat a meal if I needed to. In the meantime, there were graphic designers who were employed and we were doubling down in the sense that the money was going to that. We doubled down when we purchased our own building, probably about four or five years in.
I hope I didn’t fail to answer your question, Rob, and go roundabout, but I think there was a series of doing nothing but doubling down in those first three years, probably, of Tribu’s life.
ROB: Sure. There’s an extent to which every hire is an investment into the business. Some make you choke on payroll a little bit harder than others, when you’re like, “We’re going to hire somebody who makes what?” Then you have to say, “Yeah, I guess we’re going to do that.”
SARA: [laughs] Yep.
ROB: How do you make the jump, or connect the dots, then, between SEO and brand? I might see a shadow of it, but it’s not a common conversation, right? Most folks in SEO don’t get really excited about rebranding, except for what keywords they’re going to target. How did you get there?
SARA: I love that question. Honestly, I think when you get really, really deep into SEO and you start trying to guess the algorithm and what Google’s up to and what it’s going to change towards and what’s going to be their next move – the deeper you go, the more you find that the algorithm – my theory is that it’s going to go towards what is genuinely, authentically inspiring to another human being. That’s what we want to show in our result when someone enters in a query. And that’s what led me to, okay, brand really, really matters from SEO, if that makes sense.
I think that’s where the connection was made. I also think good SEO strategies, good organics, really focus on – even though it’s not stereotypical in an SEO’s mind, engagement rate really matters. What’s your popularity? That’s a very big one in terms of SEO. In order to get there, sure, you can do all these little tips and tricks and technical hacks, and it’s really good to know them, but in order to get there you’ve got to have some substance. You’ve got to have a good brand.
That’s where the interest came from. I also think previously, I was very rebellious when I was young. [laughs] I did not know that I was going to necessarily love a subject of any sort in school, but I absolutely loved creativity. I know this is marketing, but business and entrepreneurship is a very good way for a rebel to be a productive person to society.
So you take that and you combine that with creativity and this fortunate thing that I landed in SEO, honestly, and it all hodgepodged, and that’s how we went from SEO to brand.
ROB: The connection’s definitely there. There’s all of the parlor tricks, and then there’s the conviction that eventually what Google’s going to keep doing is optimizing for giving people what they want. If that aligns to who you are – the essence of the brand is who you are, and the essence of SEO is what people want, and you put those together. It ties, but it’s not often in the same conversation. I haven’t heard it very much. It’s fascinating coming through who you are.
SARA: It makes it an interesting combination for Tribu, honestly. It’s a cool combination for our partners to enjoy. There’s that very technical, astute digital marketing aspect and strategy, but there’s also that very award-winning, strong creativity coming out of Tribu. I feel like a lot of times when partners or customers in the marketplace hire agencies – not every agency puts them in this, but a lot of agencies put you into making a choice. Like, “I can hire really good strategy, really good technical stuff, or I can hire really creative stuff, but I don’t know that the message is ever going to completely go as far as it could go.”
We’re not the only agency that does this, but we do pride ourselves on it at Tribu. We try really hard to be the agency where you don’t have to compromise between creativity and strategy and the digital, technical stuff that helps brands really grow.
ROB: Absolutely, for sure. It’s very self-aware, and I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to keep in mind their rebellious streaks. I went through a profile of one sort or another this past week, and basically, I scored ultimately on this axis where it’s like “If somebody tells you to do something, you’re probably going to do the opposite.”
Another entrepreneur who was in that conversation – I think a lot of us, especially in the services world, have this acquisition fantasy that someone’s going to show up someday and drop a big pile of cash on the front door and acquire your business. But most of the time, that actually ends up looking like an earnout. So someone I know who’s in the middle of that had this rebellious streak, the want-to-be-the-lead-horse streak, and this particular analysis – they didn’t know anything about what the person’s experience was, but it said, “Something in your life is out of alignment here. At work, you are not being that lead horse that you usually are.” It was because they had a boss.
Have you ever contemplated this sort of agency acquisition fantasy that some of us have? Or maybe you just realized that wouldn’t go well? How do you think about it?
SARA: I don’t know. I hope I’m self-aware in that regard. What you just explained, I am so guilty of, which is like as soon as you add the boss on top of me, I’m a miserable person, even if the boss didn’t tell me anything. [laughs]
But yeah, in terms of Tribu’s future, I don’t know, maybe one day there will be an exit. I’m not ever going to say never. But we’re not working towards that right now. That’s not our strategy. That’s not where our eyes are at. We’re still at that phase in business where we’re realizing our own best and obsessed enough with figuring that out for ourselves and especially for the people we serve.
I think knowing about exit strategy, even not wanting to right now, is valuable in the sense that what you have to do to prepare for an exit makes you a better business. It makes you cleaner on financials. It makes you put together core processes that help everybody get more aligned. So we like to know about exits, and sure, we think about them sometimes because it makes you a better business, but we’re not coming at it from the perspective of hoping for an exit. That’s not in the plans right now.
ROB: That’s so key, and people don’t realize it when they start to look at the checklists of especially what makes a services firm worth more than like 1x revenue on an earnout. It’s all of those things. How well does this thing operate without you? How are the processes? How are the renewals? It’s all of these things.
Do you have a particular set of tools you have found work really well for you to store and maintain and update processes in a way that everybody knows where to look? Do you have anything that’s working?
SARA: We struggled with that for a couple of years when we started. Where we landed was Asana, which is our project management system. It’s also where we store all of our core processes so that if you’re working at Tribu, the program that everybody, regardless of your position, is working in is also the place where you can find all the core processes. That’s pretty much what we landed on in terms of tools for that.
We at one point had one-sheeters on everything we could think of in Google Drive, and then everybody would forget what one-sheeters existed. I don’t know if that was too literal of an answer, or if that’s what you meant by systems, but literally we decided to store them all in Asana.
ROB: That’s right. It’s interesting at two levels. There’s one that is the lesson that there is one place and that’s where you go. You don’t have to say, “Is this in Drive or in Gmail or in Dropbox?”, all the way down the line. I think it helps you realize why there’s so many of these systems out there, but also why people switch. People switch when they can’t find a way to invest enough in their PM tool to make it the source of truth.
SARA: Yeah, honestly, in marketing, that’s one of the things that’s happening in general. There’s so many tools out there, so many things you can use. I think in marketing in general, that’s one of the things that makes it more fun – I like change – but it makes it harder to play. I mean, how much momentum and how deep can you get if you’re changing the tool you’re using every four months? We just made the decision that we don’t need it to be the most perfect thing, but we need it to be a stable thing. We need it to be a constant thing. We need it to be a thing that maybe doesn’t have every feature that we want, but is going to do the job really well.
ROB: But commit to it.
ROB: Sara, when you rewind this journey, these 10 years so far, what are some lessons you’ve learned that you might wish you could go back and tell yourself to do a little bit differently, if you were intercepting yourself in that moment of the business?
SARA: Oh God, so many. I think we’re a great business today, but we’re definitely not perfect and we have our moments in history where we look back and go, “Uh, we should’ve thought about that one a little bit more.”
I think the biggest takeaway is ‘A’ players. Nothing replaces ‘A’ players, whatever ‘A’ players is to your agency. There were times where I think we compromised out of desperation. We grew too fast, like “We need to fill this role – someone get a body in there.” But we’ve I think learned the hard way that you never compromise on ‘A’ players. You figure out whatever you have to figure out, but get the ‘A’ players in because they’re going to solve the problems. You get them in, you take care of them, and you trust them. They’re going to solve the problems. They’re going to help navigate. They’re going to help grow. That was a big lesson learned for us, painfully at times, as we were getting to where we are today.
Another lesson that I think goes along with that is – and it’s the most stereotypical thing; you hear it all the time – but culture. Culture is the thing that has to be managed and taken care of and nurtured and planned and intentional and worked at. Don’t just let it be a thing that roams free and gets away from you. Controlling that is so important. I’ve seen times in these short 10 years where I wasn’t very proud of the culture we had at that moment in time, and I’ve seen times where I’m like, oh my God, how can I clone this cultural moment? You can basically put those times alongside our financials, and they match. [laughs] The good times, the finances look good; the times that culture’s not so great, the finances don’t look so great.
So ‘A’ players and culture. Those are things I would’ve – it’s 20/20 hindsight, always, but I would’ve put more importance on those things earlier if I could go back in time.
ROB: That’s another area where I think we get tempted to fake it, on culture. You feel like you need to make up some values or something like that. But it doesn’t work until it’s real, and you can’t keep the ‘A’ players until that part’s real also.
A question that comes to mind right where we are right now, October 2021 – I’m sure you spent at least some, if not a lot, of last year working apart where maybe you were accustomed to working together. How do you think about spreading, driving, reinforcing culture when you’re not in the same place, and maybe the patterns that helped form it before aren’t available?
SARA: How do I answer that? There’s so much to say there. That’s such a great question. That was actually something that in some ways we did so excellent last year, and in some ways we did so poorly. It was such a year of learning.
One of the things I think we did excellent in terms of “How did we do that and retain it?” was just surprises. When you’re inside an office, operating in a good culture, there are pleasant surprises that happen in your day that you don’t necessarily think about because that’s just your day. That’s just every day. So being intentional about creating those surprises when we were all apart from each other, whether that was mailing everybody a cookie kit or something that they didn’t know was going to come, but they can do with their kids and send pictures and create conversation about that maybe had nothing to do with work, but to make up for that passing hallway conversation that you miss out on – those are things I look at last year and I’m like, that was pretty cool that we did that. Patting ourselves on the back, that was smart.
There are other things that I look at that we did last year as we were learning to navigate remote where, now that we’ve been doing it longer, I’m like, we should’ve done that better. Like making time to say, “How are you?”, not “How’s this project?”
And then also – and this one surprised me – I think most executives were worried about productivity drops. We had a productivity skyrocket. People could not turn it off. So something that I didn’t learn, because I was actually expecting in part an opposite result, but we had to help our team turn it off. That was a surprise to us and something I think we would’ve done better, or do better now, honestly. When you’ve got Slack going and everybody’s remote, it’s so easy for someone to send you a Slack message at 8:30, 9:00, and it’s totally fine to let that wait till the next morning, but you just don’t want to do that to your peer, your coworker, your friend. And then eventually it just never stopped. So that was a surprise to us.
ROB: Definitely, my own habit, I’m a sloppy Slacker. I tell everybody involved with me, look, if I don’t send you this Slack message right now, I’m going to forget this thing, and it’s important, but you should not respond to it if it’s the weekend, if it’s the evening.
SARA: Of course you can read it, right? [laughs]
ROB: You should just hold it right there, and when you get to work on Monday or in the morning, pay attention then. Please do not – unless I tell you “Do this now,” which just doesn’t happen – because if something’s on fire, they’re already responding to it. They understand urgency. That false urgency is potentially pretty dangerous.
Sara, when you think about what’s coming up for Tribu and the kind of work that you all do, what are you excited about? What’s next?
SARA: Again, bootstrapped, organic growth. We’ve had to add things over time. We recently this year formally added videography and production in-house. We were collaborating with an awesome group of freelancers and many people before to fill those needs. I’m very excited about having that in-house. It makes everything else we’re already offering much more powerful.
And then in general, the industry, what’s coming up that I’m super excited about – and I think all of us at Tribu are – things like TikTok. Not necessarily that there’s a new social media platform. It’s more so the format change that a platform like TikTok is driving – that informal, very human, fun, relatable, just people being goofy. That type of content. That’s just so exciting that brands are going to get to play in that space.
As the world’s moved – we talked about it when we were talking about SEO – whatever’s really core and authentic to a human’s heart, to those tribes, seems to be the good business move in terms of brand building as well. So to see that that’s an opportunity for brands to have more fun and be lighthearted and participate in those types of conversations, to show more of their human side because of platforms like TikTok and the formats they’re encouraging, that I’m very excited about. I think we all are at Tribu.
ROB: It’s a great point. It’s almost like TikTok broke all of us, in a way, because you could kind of pretend that every channel was the same if you really were committed to it, and it just breaks the narrative. I think it helps you be who you need to be on Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Facebook. It fractures everything by making more than one message. I think it helps people get channel-specific, even if they’re not even touching TikTok, because sometimes it might not make sense. Maybe it always makes sense if you can figure it out. I don’t know.
SARA: If you’re on alcohol, they don’t let you play on it right now. So sometimes even if it did make sense, it’s not an option yet. [laughs] But yeah, for sure. You said it so spot-on. TikTok really is breaking that format, and it’s going to inspire a lot of channel specificity in marketing, which we’re excited about.
ROB: Especially with that video capability. Sara, when people want to find you and Tribu, where should they go to connect with you?
SARA: Oh, thank you. Wearetribu.com. A little fun secret is that as we’ve scaled, the one thing I refuse to change is that that contact form goes straight to my inbox. So if ever anybody wants to send in a message, I’d love to hear from anybody.
ROB: Fantastic. We’ll get the site dialed into the show notes as well. Sara, congratulations on everything so far. Looking forward to what comes next as well. Thanks for coming on and sharing with us.
SARA: Thanks for having me.
ROB: You bet. Be well.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.