The right brand building tactics are necessary to set aside your business from your competitors. If you find this task quite difficult, hiring a business coach is the way to go. Mark Drager learned this the hard way, with him exhausting their savings just because he could not position himself well. Joining Julie Houston and Gem Rinehart, he looks back on how aimlessly selling his internet marketing skills taught him the importance of getting professional help in building a strong brand. Mark also opens up about his grandfather’s life and career that inspired him in his own journey, and why he finds commercial architecture a fulfilling space to be in.
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Branding Your Business To Stand Out With Mark Drager
I am very excited. Gem and I are here with an incredible individual with whom we are honored and blessed to have met and crossed paths, Mark Drager. Mark, welcome to the show. It’s such an honor to have you here. Welcome.
I feel welcome. I feel the energy and the love. You pick better adjectives because the feeling is there. Thank you, Gem and Julie, for having me. I was so overwhelmed by the welcome.
I’m so excited to have you that we love anytime we spend time with you, even if it’s in an elevator.
We have to tell that story. We’re part of a very exclusive mastermind group we’ve been lucky enough to be invited into. We were in Tampa, Florida, last March. This is super cool. As part of this group, there’s this special link to the black book. I’ve been a part of a bunch of mastermind groups and exclusive groups, but I love the idea of the black book. Whenever I attend an event, I always flip through it and thinking like, “Who do I want to connect with?” I could call you up. I have your contact details and stuff, but I pick people I want to connect with. We’re at this event for five days. We never connect at all. There are 140 of the most amazing people at this event.
As I’m leaving to check out, you’re on the elevator. I’m like, “I got to go to Orlando. I’m late. I got to run. You got to catch a flight.” We want to connect with each other, and now here we are after all of these months. To answer your question, I got to get out of the way first. The fact that I’m a Canadian, I can slip by as an American based on the way I speak, but eventually, if I don’t put that front and center, people feel like it’s a bait and switch. I live outside of Toronto, Canada. I’m a brand strategist and a positioning expert. The way one becomes a brand strategist and a positioning expert was many years ago, they do something else.
I went to film school, and out of film school, I got a job at an internet marketing franchise. We had 1,500 offices in 90 countries and territories. My job was to make videos to help communicate learning, CEO messages, franchise development marketing, onboarding, training, or all of that stuff. This is back in 2005 to 2006. Internet marketing was pretty early. PPC Google AdWords had just been invented. There were no social media, and we shot everything on tape. That’s how old I am. We went out and spent $8,000 on a little camera and would shoot on tape and digitize everything.
After about a year or two of doing that at this franchise, I approached the CEO and said, “It’s awesome that I have this job, but I want to start my own company. It would be great if you let me leave, and rather than replace me, you outsource all the work to me.” I gave them a bunch of reasons why that made sense from a business point of view and an expense point of view, and they agreed. In late 2006, I started Phanta Media, a video company. We made corporate videos, which were like, “In 1999, a corporation was known,” or it would be a CEO talking head, and they’d be like, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Mark Drager.” It was all that kind of stuff.
Flash forward, past the recession, which we can get into if you want because I made way too many mistakes and almost went bankrupt and had all of these issues, and we can park there if you want, video communications became marketing in social media. Marketing became advertising. We grew the company to over $1 million in revenue. I grew the team. We’ve been doing this for many years now.
Halfway through that journey, we grew to the point where we were doing television campaigns, radio campaigns, and national commercials. Long story short, I’m a brand strategist. If you make websites, graphic design, videos, or anything, if you’re in real estate and buy and sell properties, at a certain point, you stop doing the actual work and start doing the strategy, the business, the creative, or what have you. As my career has gone on, we focused more and more on those strategic elements and less on the commodities you could pay someone to do overseas a fraction of what you’d have to pay me to do.If you are in real estate, you must stop at a certain point and start creating marketing strategies. This is where a brand strategist is needed. Click To Tweet
I want to go back to when everything bombed. Not to sidetrack, but the comeback is important for people to know, especially in the economy nowadays and the current world we’re living in with inflation. The cost of living is going up. A lot of people are looking for an alternate stream of income, a side hustle, whatever that may be. Branding and positioning your company is a critical part. I want to know the comeback story of when you went out on your own and now where you’re at and through the different markets, if you don’t mind sharing it.
Now, we have moved away from corporate clients, and we’re working with MBA and national corporations. I was told early on, “Go where the money is.” That’s cool. You can build a team and get money. We built a multimillion-dollar agency. Before COVID, I had 24 full-time staff locally, but I wasn’t really that happy. Now we work exclusively with entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants on their personal brands, product, or company brands. I say that because I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. When I started, I was the guy who was like, “I make videos. Who needs a video? Do you need a video? I can make great videos.” It turns out that’s not a great way to sell anything.
It’s like, “I make websites. I do development. I’m a lender. I’m a lawyer. I’m an accountant.” It’s cool, and if you happen to trip across someone who happens to need those services and does not have any network, connections, or anyone or even have Google to be able to find someone, you may get a client. I started my company on January 1st, 2007. First of all, I’m not positioning myself well. I didn’t even know those terms, but I was not positioning myself well. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know who to focus on. I didn’t know who to target. I didn’t know how to sell these services. I started the company with a $25,000 line of credit from my mom.
Here’s a little backstory. My wife and I had gotten married the year before, and my daughter was only three months old. My wife wasn’t working. My daughter was just a tiny little baby. I quit my $ 45,000-a-year job and was like, “I’m going to start this company.” By May, I realized we had burned through all of our savings. We had pretty much worked trying to live off $2,000 a month, which is not easy. We live in Toronto, where the cost of living is like living in New York. It was very expensive.
We’re just running out of money, and I realize, “We have a few projects here or there for my network. We only have three months, and I’m going to have to pack this in and get a job, I guess. Now we burned through all of our money and savings, and I’m going to have $25,000 in debt.” The thing that I did during that period, which I think you’ve probably done and I still find myself doing nowadays, and anyone who started anything does is all of my friends and family knew that I quit my job. They knew that my wife Jacqueline was at home, not making money. They knew that we had a baby, and they all were like, “How’s it going?”
Am I going to tell them? I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not going well, and we’re wasting all of our money. Am I going to tell them that? No. I’m going to be like, “It’s great.” Everything is fine. It’s all good. No, there’s nothing wrong here. This was the best decision I ever made. You don’t want to tell everyone like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Not only my hopes, but the responsibilities we have as family members or what have you, I don’t want to say that. Finally, and I don’t remember who I told, but I told someone who wasn’t going well. They were like, “It sounds like you need a business coach.” I was like, “I have no money.”
Through someone, I found out that at my previous company that I quit, someone else quit at the same time, and they were business coaching. It’s like this intern thing. I reached out to them. This guy’s name was Frank Milner, an amazing man. I said, “Frank, I don’t know what I’m doing.” We met, and I explained I had no money, and I think I have potential, but I don’t know. He came back with a proposal where he basically said, “You got to put some skin in the game. I’m going to charge you $500 a month.” Frank was a man who had many years of senior sales experience.
He had worked for Aramark and other large corporations. He’d led sales teams. He knew what he was doing. He was going to meet with me in my office one hour per week for $500 per month, but he also wanted 10% of the revenue. I’m like, “We’re not making any money.” That was the greatest thing ever. It wasn’t just hiring the business coach. It wasn’t just making the investment in myself. It wasn’t any of those things. It was admitting to someone that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I needed help. As soon as I was able to drop the ego and admit that I needed some help, somehow through the universe, through God, through whatever, the solution presented itself to me, and I made the investment.As soon as you drop your ego and admit that you need help, the universe will present the best solution. Click To Tweet
Within 2 or 3 months, he helped me figure out, “Who would be my client? What would they pay? What would be the difference between someone who’s in marketing or communications versus an HR, entrepreneur, coach, and solopreneur? What would they do?” People don’t want to buy a video. They want an outcome. What would those outcomes be? He helped me figure out all the things that I now help our clients figure out. That way, we could position the product, determine where we were versus our competition, and start selling stuff. Five months in, I hadn’t sold anything. I’m losing money. By the end of the year which is 6 or 7 months later, I had sold $100,000 worth of services. That was the thing that helped me up until the Great Recession hit. That was another lesson.
That’s an amazing story. Something that a lot of people struggle with is identifying, for one, that they need that help, and two, just speaking that out. As soon as you did that, like you said, the universe made things work and put the right person on your lap. Look how things turned out. That’s amazing.
I believe more than ever because I’ve had to learn this lesson again. In 2009, we lost everything. I burned through all my cash. I had to let my team go. The recession happened. All my corporate clients stopped spending money on stuff because we were working with banks and pension plans. Remember, there was a banking crisis. Property management companies, large institutional investors, and all of those people stopped doing work. There was a three-month period where we had zero revenue and clients. I’m a few years into this. My wife and I bought our first house in the summer of 2008 before this was kicking off.
We have two kids, had bought a house, the recession hits, and we lose everything. I remember calling my mom because she was the person I could confide in. She was the person I could talk to. I remember calling her. It was February 2009. I said, “We have no clients. We have nothing going on. I don’t really know what to do.” She said, “Stop. You did this, so you tried it. Do something else. It’s not a big deal.” This was something that my mom always taught me, which I loved. No one can take the experiences away from you. These are experiences and lessons you’ve learned. No matter if you succeed or fail in life, try it. I was like, “I don’t know. I’m worried about that regret.”
First of all, I felt like I had built something and had burned through a few years of being productive in my twenties. I was 23 when I started, and now I’m older. I felt like I had invested too much and seen too little returns to walk away with “nothing.” I was not accounting for the experience. I was looking at my bank dollars. I spent all these years when I could have been earning income and didn’t earn anything. I said, “I’m going to give it one last kick at the can.” I borrowed $50,000 off of the house that we could barely afford.
I hired a head hunter. I got him to find me a salesperson. I’d like to tell you that the salesperson changed everything, but they didn’t. Six weeks and they quit. I went back to the head hunter, “You offered me a free replacement. Please find me someone.” A man came in named Daniel Moskowitz. We worked together for several years. Daniel Moskowitz came in and took a chance on me. You have to understand. I’m a guy who runs a video production company in a little tiny 150-square-foot sublet office in a basement. We didn’t have furniture. We had banquet tables.
When we talk about bootstrapping, this was bootstrapping. The website and message didn’t make sense. We made videos that were just okay. When I say we, it’s me. I’m shooting, lighting, and editing everything. I’m doing everything. He takes a chance on me for whatever reason. I hired him. For the next six months, I paid him, I paid rent, and I paid my corporate insurance, but I didn’t pay myself because there wasn’t enough money. I would take each paycheck, pay the income tax on that paycheck, slip it into my desk, and never deposit it. If you’re not making any money, what’s the point of taking money out of a business account and moving into a personal account? It doesn’t mean anything.
My wife would be like, “It’s been a month. Are you going to pay yourself?” Not yet, then not yet, and then not yet. Month after month went by, and I’d pay Daniel, rent, and all my expenses. I started getting this stack of paychecks growing that I’m paying the income tax on, but basically, I’m just turning my income into a shareholder loan because we don’t have any money. He knew how desperate things were getting. We closed a sale for $14,000. What happened was he knew how desperate things were, so he started calling in everyone in his network, every single person he could bring in, just to get a meeting. He brought in someone who was a friend of his dad. He was like, “We need something.”
He’s calling in favors, and we’re meeting with them. I’m going through the strategy process with them. I am so excited. I am so animated. We’re at a boardroom table in this conservative place, and I’m up and acting things out. I’m like, “What if we did this? What if we did that?” As we were walking out, Daniel turned to me and said, “You are so good at this.” He never saw me present because we never had an opportunity. He’s like, “You are so good at this.” I’m like, “Really? Cool.” That was it.
We figured out our messaging. We started testing things better. We started figuring out our prospects. We started working on positioning. Little by little, within 6 to 8 months, we’ve hired another staff member and another one. Guess what? $180,000 in revenue turns into $330,000, $330,000 turns into $650,000, $650,000 turns into $900,000, and $900,000 turns into a little over $1 million. We go from 2 people to six 6 people, from 6 people to 8 people, and from 8 people to 12 people. That’s it. For years up until COVID, I would always say to my mom I wanted to give it one last kick at the can, and we’re still on that ride.
I love your mom. I don’t even know her, and I love her. She gives the best advice.
She’s always been a bit more of a free spirit. She’s very creative. She ran a children’s clothing line in the mid-’80s as an entrepreneur. She decided, “I’m going to become a writer.” She became a poetry writer. She just decides to do things and does it. That’s some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from my mom.
I got to ask. Who is your biggest role model? Who ideally could you say impacted your life in the direction you went and where you’re at now?
There are two people, and they’re for different reasons. My mom and dad split up. My mom’s name is Barbara. The week I was born, my dad left. They were able to have an amicable relationship. They’re still friends nowadays all of these years later. They separated in 1983, and yet they can still be friends. It wasn’t bad, but my dad was never that present. I grew up with my mom, aunt, and sister. I was raised in a household of women until my stepfather came along, which was a very negative experience. The formative childhood years up to the age of seven are just my mom, my aunt, and my sister. My mom has taught me a lot of things because of her can-do attitude and, “Let’s try it,” and her creative approach.
The other person who has impacted me in much more manly ways, or I should say my male role model is my grandfather. He’s still with us. He was born in 1928. He was raised in Lithuania, just on the border. It was one of those things where they’re German, and suddenly a border gets created after the first World War. Suddenly, they’re not in Germany. They’re in Lithuania. Because of that, some years in school, it was German, and some years it was Lithuanian. He didn’t speak Lithuanian, so he didn’t go to school. He only had a grade six education. When the war broke out, and the Russians were coming, he became a German refugee, and they had to leave everything. I can’t speak to half of the horrors that he saw.
He was a farmhand in Germany as a refugee. The Lutheran church brings him to Canada, and he works for two years to pay off his debt and bring my grandmother over. They had met four months before he left at a dance. When he knew he was leaving, he proposed and said, “Will you come to Canada?” Two years later, he’s paid off his debt and paid for her tickets. She comes to Canada. He’s a bricklayer. He’s a stonemason. He and his three cousins went on to become home builders, and from home builders to developers, and from developers, they built 180 unit high rise rentals in the ’60s. They went on before his generation started passing on. They’d gone on to build roughly a $500 million privately held family-run company in residential development.
He’s very quiet. People loved him by the way he treated people with respect and the loyalty that he paid to people. They would have salaried roofers who would work in all the subdivisions. When they hit their late 40s or 50s, they would move them to other parts of the company, even though it didn’t make sense to hold onto these people. Now they’re doing ground maintenance. When they can’t do ground maintenance anymore, they’re now sweeping up a parking lot in a commercial plaza. When they can’t do the commercial plazas anymore, they’re now painting something. They would hold these staff members for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years.
There were people who had worked where they’d said like, “I started for $1 a week in 1963,” and they’d worked their whole life for my grandfather’s company. There was something about the way that they approached business and the scale that they were able to operate, even though they were very old school. The fact that I grew up in a family where if they needed to build something at the cottage, they would look at it, grab a pencil, grab a measuring tape, and try something. They design and build everything. They’d come up with the craziest things. I grew up in this environment where you can build things to make it happen. It takes hard work, and it’s uncomfortable, but you make mistakes, and you just fix them.
What do you love most about what you do?
It’s the building thing. I thought about this because when I was a teenager, I wanted to be an architect. As a kid, I used to take chart paper and draw out floor plans for residential stuff. When I would build with Lego, I always thought how cool it would be to build spaces with Lego with stairs and everything to scale. Frankly, in the final year of senior high school, I got scared of the thought of going into Civil Engineering, Architecture, and all this stuff. I went to film school instead because it seemed easier. When I graduated and went into film school and did all the marketing stuff I’ve done, I realized that at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.
I love commercial architecture. I love the idea of spaces, lobby, light, eye lines, and all of those things. If you’re doing it well, there’s egress and all these things. It’s really about the experience you want to create in the space. What I love about live events when I’m helping people run live events is all about the experience at the moment and what you can create in the space. When we’re helping an entrepreneur, coach, or consultant with their positioning and branding, we could talk about what a brand is because it’s more than a logo, colors, and a tagline. When we’re helping people, what I love most is I draw on that engineering saying that we don’t need to talk to everyone, and we don’t need to be in every single place on every single platform with every single message.
We’re not competing against every single person that’s out there. If we can figure out your actual prospect journey, what matters most to them, their preconceived notions in the context of what they understand and what they don’t understand, and what your competition may be saying or not saying, if we can figure all this stuff out, we can create the most amazing, remarkable, unique message, look, and feel so that way when you’re showing up, you’re showing up the way you need to. To me, the idea of architecture, environment, and experience or brand building to turn your brand into a sales tool that will frankly manipulate people in order to think the way you want them to think, take the actions you want them to take, and move forward through the process the way that you want them to move forward through the process, I find that fascinating, honestly.
I love it. For our readers, if they were interested in reaching out to you and getting more information, how would they go about doing that?
There are a few options. The easiest thing to do is head over to Instagram. My handle is @Mark.Drager. You can send me a DM. I should have a chatbot, funnel, and a social media manager answering all that, but I don’t. If you send me a message, it’s me. I’d love to be able to hear from you. If you want to learn more about our process, you can head over to Phanta.com. We’re in the midst of actually a remarkable rebrand because several years in, I realized that everything has changed, and there’s something exciting about building that new thing about building upon all of your past experiences and everything that you’ve done and everything you understand and everything you’re bringing to the table but in a whole fresh new package. Depending on when you’re reading this, you can also go over to CoreThree.co.
Do you have any final words in closing you’d like to share with our viewers? What would be your top tips to them, maybe a few tips or tricks or tools that you would share?
If you’re reading this, you’re already part of the cream of the crop. Most people live their lives as a victim. I’ve learned this the hard way. Most people think things are happening to them as opposed for them. Most people think that they’re not in control. Most people think that they can’t change and grow. The very fact that you’re reading this now means that you’re not like most people. It already moves you to the high achiever status or the extraordinary status. The biggest problem is you can’t do this alone. I’ve bootstrapped things and helped people bootstrap things, but you can’t build stuff without money. You can’t build stuff without time, and you can’t build stuff without people.
Knowing what to invest, where to invest, and the smartest things to invest in, if you don’t know, don’t spend years like I did, figuring it out very fully. Raise your hand and say, “I need help. I need that coach. I need to hire someone who has done this before.” If you work with a brand strategist like myself or someone else, I already know that we’re going to save you 2 or 3 years. I already know that it’s the difference between you building a multimillion-dollar company and you go bankrupt. The question is, will you raise your hand? Will you ask for help? Will you make the investment in working with someone like me, or the best lawyer, the best accountant, whatever it is?
The best people take an investment. With the best marketing and advertising, the thought that you could build this without it making an investment is foolish. I’ve made that mistake before. That brings me to my last piece of advice, which is if you are going to bet on anything, bet on yourself. If you are going to invest in anything, invest in yourself. Like my mom said, no one can take that experience away from you. Even if what you’re doing today fails, trust me, it will serve you next time, and then the time after that, and then the time after that. It will continue to serve you until, frankly, you figure this out or you give up.
Thank you so much, Mark. It was such a pleasure having you with us in this episode. I know that our readers are going to get a lot of information from everything you shared. Guys, if you want to get in touch with Mark, go to Instagram. His handle is @Mark.Drager. He is the real person that will message you. We want to thank Barbara for the episode. Thank you, mom. Thank you so much, Mark.
It was great having you give some great words of wisdom to our audience. It was such a pleasure.
About Mark Drager
Mark founded his creative production company in 2006, grew it to a little over $2mm in annual revenue, and then slowly watched as it all crumbled around him. Through the hard lessons learned and working to not make the same mistakes twice, today Phanta Media focuses less on growth and “keeping the machine fed” and more on doing extraordinary work with really cool people. As a brand strategist, Mark also understands the need to be courageous and has developed a killer process that can help you make your next courageous move.