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Ten years ago, Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger found themselves at a turning point in their freelance design careers. Though only in their twenties, both felt that they were losing passion for their work.
“We discovered a simple idea,” said Bonnell. “Having a sense of purpose is the most meaningful asset in any business.” That realization put them on a new path, and the pair set out to build their own branding and design agency. That’s when Motto was born.
“Starting our business was exciting, inspiring, and wildly adventurous,” Bonnell said. “The early days were filled with what felt like insurmountable challenges and stupefying questions like ‘How do we pay our assistant this week?’ and ‘How do we make a meal out of Cap’n Crunch and ketchup?’”
Bonnell and Hansberger launched Motto in a 14×14 office space in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with $250, two computers, two desks from Ikea, and a borrowed printer. The first year, the pair brought in a modest $25,000 in revenue. By the second year, Motto’s revenues had jumped to $300,000.
Nine years later, Motto has grown into a renovated 2,500 square foot industrial warehouse with clients from all over the world. Bonnell and Hansberger have won business awards from Amex OPEN and were even named among America’s Coolest Entrepreneurs in Inc .30 Under 30.
“It was never our intention to grow fast,” said Bonnell. “We wanted the experience of growing, fleshing out our approach, correcting the course as necessary, and working hands-on with our clients to see the transformation.”
The ability to scale is a challenge that plagues bootstrapped businesses of every type. How, then, did Bonnell and Hansberger do it so quickly?
One of the first steps was changing the way they billed clients. When starting out, the two charged hourly consulting rates. But several years into the business, they moved their business model to package pricing.
“We did this to maximize profits and provide a higher level of service to our clients,” said Bonnell.
Motto has also diversified its revenue stream by hosting hourly consulting sessions and on-site strategy workshops. These are designed to provide specific guidance and solutions to their clients’ most pressing challenges.
“We are also building scalable income and additional revenue streams with webinars, speaking, and books,” Bonnell added.
Motto’s compass has been its mission, quality of work, and vision. Rather than chasing profit margins, Bonnell and Hansberger focused on investments that nurtured their core strengths. This financial discipline allowed the business to scale in a direction that supported the founders’ mission and vision.
“We’ve always been careful about costs and to not get into things we couldn’t afford or didn’t need,” Bonnell explained. “But we never denied our business or ourselves in areas that mattered to us. We invested in our education, conferences, equipment, software, and technology.”
Bonnell and Hansberger designed Motto to be able to adapt to any economic scenario. “We use a business model that allows us to scale up or down, which keeps us nimble, creative, and flexible,” said Bonnell. “It’s kept overhead low and allowed us to grow wisely, not furiously.”
One of the keys to Motto’s flexibility is its talent network. When a demanding project comes along, the firm can turn to its network of trusted freelancers to tackle the project quickly.
Motto has also outsourced its business operations and works with an outside bookkeeper, IT specialist, accountant, and attorney. For a bootstrapped business, this level of agility means less overhead and more revenue.
It’s an understatement to say that starting—and running—a business is tough. What keeps Bonnell and Hansberger going is their relentless personal stake in what they want the business to become: an extension of the founders’ core identities.
As Bonnell pointed out, Motto is more than just a name. “It’s a symbol of who we are and what we stand for,” she says. “Historically, mottos were war cries of sentiment, hope, and promise. Today, mottos serve as a rallying call—a reason to exist.”
Bonnell and Hansberger understood, however, that the best way to maintain a personal stake in their work was to take a step back and bring other creatives into their business processes.
“We realized that keeping ourselves indispensable is reckless and unscalable behavior,” said Bonnell. “We began focusing on the bigger picture, high-level consulting, meeting influencers, and delegating tasks that others can do more efficiently.”
According to Bonnell, the decision to delegate work has been invaluable for bootstrapping and growing their business. “This allows us to stay visionary and lead our company forward,” said Bonnell.
Ritika Puri specializes in business, marketing, entrepreneurship and tech. She writes for American Express OPEN Forum, Forbes, Investopedia, Business Insider, CMO, the SAP Innovation Blog and others.
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