Kevin Whelan is a marketing advisor for coworking spaces and other industries like e-commerce. Today, he shares how you can pinpoint your customer's needs to build the right service or product for them simply by asking them the right questions.

John Meese 0:24
Kevin, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you doing?

Kevin Whelan 0:27
I'm doing great, john, thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.

John Meese 0:30
Well, it's my pleasure. And I appreciate you taking the time. And so you know, I got to know you originally kind of came up with cross paths through the coworking industry, when I started a new co working space, then your name came across my radar. But I've since kind of poked around a little and learned that you have more of a digital marketing background than just co working. But I would love for you to just take a minute and kind of introduce yourself in terms of who you are. We'll get you out of bed in the morning and what you're up to these days.

Kevin Whelan 0:55
Great. Yeah, oh, my goodness. So right now in over the last couple years, I've been deep in the coworking world, I've been working for coworking spaces for about six years, I'm a marketing consultant. And over the years, I've sort of gone from an agency to a consultant to an advisor. So I mostly do advisory work kind of like coaching, but helping the organization get to change. And then now educators as well. So you know, packaging up the things that I that I developed and then kind of creating little products and memberships and kind of group programs and that kind of thing. So yeah, these days, I spend about probably about 70 or 80% of my time in coworking and then you know about 20% of the time working with other industries like, you know, e commerce and you know, a few other things just to keep my skills sharp, and also my portfolio sort of diversified.

John Meese 1:37
Well, I'd love to dive in to our conversation today and talk about, you know, marketing, I mean, the coworking space industry, I'm new to that. And so I'm learning about those challenges in full force this year. But I would like to talk about, you know, business in a broader sense. But before we get into that, I would love it if you would go back with me real quick, way, way, way, way back in time to about March 2020. And one specifically, I'd love to know, uh, when did you first realize that COVID-19 was a real threat? Do you remember where you were, what the news item was? Or what the conversation was that made you go? Oh, wait a second. This is this is a little unusual. It's a big deal.

Kevin Whelan 2:14
Well, taking it even a couple months earlier, we had a baby back in November end of November. Thankfully,

John Meese 2:19
I did too.

Kevin Whelan 2:20
Oh, yeah. Great.

John Meese 2:21
What date?

Kevin Whelan 2:22
November 23.

John Meese 2:23
Okay, November 8.

Kevin Whelan 2:24
Yeah. So we're in this together. So you know all about it. So, by the time March rolled around, you know, end of February, you know, my wife, she's a lawyer, and therefore she's, you know, aware of risks by nature. And so she was sort of like the canary in the coal mine, we were, you know, aware of Coronavirus coming through, you know, overseas, and we're sort of aware of it and seeing what they were doing the measures they were taking. So whether that was end of February or beginning of March, I don't really know. But, you know, my wife was the very early to the to the game. And we started thinking about, you know, what are the implications of this, if it is as contagious as it seems? So that's, yeah, that's, that's how it started.

John Meese 2:59
Okay. So as a business owner, how did you respond?

Kevin Whelan 3:03
Well, I think initially, it was sort of, you know, no one knew what the implications are gonna be and how wide sweeping This is going to be across the world. But once it became apparent that this was that this was just going to be a worldwide issue that we're gonna have to deal with. My first thing, you know, being largely in CO working was an, you know, for all my clients, but in the Korean context, was, hey, what are we going to do about this? And as it became apparent that, you know, we're going to need to shut some things down. And that, you know, this is going to change potentially the the course of the industry for a little while, I kind of shifted gears, and I was like, Well, how do I help clients adapt? Right? And that's sort of what you're trying to get to the bottom of is, how do you adapt? And how do you come out on the on the other side of this a bit stronger. So initially, you know, as this thing really started taking off, I just created a webinar. And it was really just like, the core premise of it was, get yourself cash secure, find a way to stay in business, so you don't go out of business or cost your family a lot of money, number one, and assuming you can cover your cash, and there's ways to do that, you know, through the relationships with your members, as well as just, you know, your expenses and that sort of thing. The goal then was to how do you build and how do you continue marketing so that when when things get back to, you know, somewhat of a normal, you're going to be in a better shape than you were when you started, because a lot of people have been too busy to really work on their marketing. And so there's a lot of gaps and right, so on the one hand, how do you stay top of mind? And on the other hand, how do you build the systems and processes and, and approve things so that you're strong, right, as demand returns? And that's what I've been focused on?

John Meese 4:26
Yeah. Okay, well, so. So what does that look like? Let's talk about that. Because you mentioned in your own business, you have a mix of roles where you're an advisor, and I saw at least one case, you refer to yourself as a fractional CMO for a company. Is that a common relationship for you with the client?

Kevin Whelan 4:41
Well, I think the easiest way to describe a strategy advisor is it's like having a chief marketing officer on your team without having a full time position because a lot of small businesses until they reach a certain size, you know, just there's no need for a CMO. So that's sort of the role I take. I try to remain neutral. And you know, my goal is I introduce you to people I don't mark up their time, and I'm really Just as your advisor to help you make decision, right, and I do so I, you know, I take my fee, it's a one time fixed fee, it's not hourly. And then, you know, the result is that you can sort of trust my advice a little more, because you know, if I'm saying you need to be spending a bit more on your website, and branding, and maybe that's going to cost you 20, or 30,000. I'm not the one turning around and also implementing it and doing it myself. Right. So then there's kind of like, you know, if I was kind of like, Hey, you know, it's like asking your Barber, do you need a haircut? Well, they're gonna probably say, yes. Or like, you know, asking your butcher, what should you eat? versus a nutritionist? And so that's sort of the role I play, and but you know, your revenue and your business, that is all of my revenue. Yeah. Like, I mean, most of it, you know, there's some other things like, you know, info products and whatnot. But yeah, I've transitioned from a done for you agency. And I figured out the best thing, I knew how to do a strategy. And and I like having I like being on the client side and helping them figure things out. So yeah, once I moved over there, yeah, that's, that's what I do now.

John Meese 5:54
Okay. So well, how is economic crisis impacted your business directly yourself? It's primarily an advisor roles, but a lot of that's in the coworking space industry, which has been hit pretty hard by this pandemic.

Kevin Whelan 6:04
Yeah. Well, I mean, I should tell you that going into the pandemic, I was doing great, you know, I had my roster, I only take on a maximum of 10 clients, one to one, and, and I was full, so the business was doing as great as it can be, you know, multiple, six figures in revenue, and yada, yada, yada. I've only lost about 25% of my business since then, which is better than I expected. But I think we're still in the midst of things. So there's been a little bit of attrition, one or two things paused, but we don't really know how things are going to go in the future. So so far, the revenue has been okay. Yeah, I was worried, though, that, you know, as an advisor, you might be nice to have. But really, what I found was more than ever, people were like, We need to navigate this effectively. And there's and there's big changes we're making, whether it be changing what we're selling, or changing what we're doing are changing who it's for. And I think that's been the bulk of what I'm doing is helping people, you know, adapt right now, which is the name of the game. Yeah.

John Meese 6:56
Yeah. Well, okay, well, in your own business, and I want to get to the clients in a moment, but in your own business, how are you pivoting to pursue opportunity and thrive in the midst of this? In other words, are there any new products, you've launched any new initiatives you launched in this time?

Kevin Whelan 7:09
Yeah, absolutely. So when it first hit, I was like, my goodness, the value of what I was offering has suddenly changed. Because people can't get the immediate ROI that they could before the very quick, you know, ish, ROI. So what I realized was, I can't discount my stuff, because that's, that's not what I do. And I needed to potentially I need to say, Well, you know, what, what are people buying? What are they interested in buying? And how can I actually help them achieve an ROI in a reasonably time sensitive manner while still preserving cash. So what I've done is basically repackaged what I offer, as in a couple ways, one, I've done some workshops. So you know, there's groups have co working spaces out there in different cities, and done workshops to help help them you know, build their their marketing systems. And then the other one is group coaching. So now I've been able to sort of productize my one to one engagement, run, you know, every other week, we do a session where I do some training on my iPad, and we, you know, we go through a number of lessons. And basically over the course of six or so months, they get the same output that you would get from a one to one engagement. And I'm finding that that's actually not only as a lower cost, so it's around the $500 a month mark as opposed to a 1600 dollar plus, but they're also getting the benefit of working with other coworking spaces, seeing what they're doing, and then infusing that creativity into their work. So it's sort of been a win win. And that's been a really nice replacement for some of that one to one consulting revenue.

John Meese 8:25
Okay, so let's talk about your advice for other business owners. Because I mean, let's talk about the coworking space industry for a minute. So you and I are deep in it right now. But there's a lot of people listening to this who may be thinking like what coworking space I mean, it's like not on their radar at all, you know, as far as the current crisis, so can you talk just for a minute about how this crisis the I mean, the pandemic the lockdown, an economic crisis, has specifically affected the coworking industry.

Kevin Whelan 9:30
So I think the coworking industry like any industry that requires shoulder to shoulder consumption, meaning in person, you know, sitting next to one another is going to be is going to be a challenge for the next little while, depending on the state depending on the city depending on the country that you're in, because it's very contextualized to the location. So I think that industry itself is gonna is going to be you know, is going to be a challenge for people but there's a lot that we can do. Sorry, refresh, man, your question. I'm just I missed that.

John Meese 9:56
No, you just that just I wanted to speak to that. That. I think that I'm just thinking to the people who are outside of the industry who maybe aren't drawing the line from, okay, there's a pandemic, and then this affects the CO working industry more than, you know, maybe the average business, maybe not, you know, maybe maybe we're just like every, like you said, like, every it's shoulder to shoulder consumption business, but it's, it's felt very visceral and direct.

Kevin Whelan 10:18
Yeah, I think it's an opportunity for a lot of businesses to figure out what can I still sell in this current environment, and a lot of that has to do with going online. So if you're a coworking space, for example, or even a brick and mortar, it's really about changing the entire, you know, view of what industry you're actually in. And because you're playing a new game, so what I tell with a lot of clients is pretend you're starting a new business from scratch, you have all the same marketing that you have the same database, the same customer group, the same assets, and what are you going to sell in this new economy, because that's going to be, you know, as if you were starting from scratch, and that that really changes your focus, like, I had another client that's in e commerce, and, and they were selling some other products like, like, coin wrappers, and you know, in person, you know, retail type stuff, and we said, Look, what are your clients doing? They all need COVID safety stuff. And so they ended up shifting gears entirely and built an entirely new business, which is just taken off. So the opportunity is out there to say, what can I still sell? Who is still buying things related to what I offer? And how do I even just reimagine, you know, the end result I'm trying to get like co working spaces are designed to help businesses succeed, or grow or something, how can you take that core premise and then do it in some kind of, you know, unique way and blending the offline with the online? And I think that's going to be the future? You know, depending on how long this takes, that's just a better business model. It's more diverse revenue streams. And in general, I think that's the way to go.

John Meese 11:31
Yeah, well, have you seen any specific creative or effective strategies in this crisis that are worth highlighting and talking about for a minute?

Kevin Whelan 11:38
I mean, one would be that e commerce example where, you know, they're selling retail stuff, and then really looking at, and I'll go back to other examples, but really looking at you know, their particular customers were mostly retail and in person type brick and mortar businesses, which I think are a lot of your target market as well. So then, you know, really was like, well, who's in a position to buy something? And what are they still buying? And then how can you sell what they offer? So not getting too precious about the thing that you're selling? And really just being customer focused? I think on my tombstone, it's gonna say, the answer to your marketing problems are in your customers are found in your customers or something like that. Because and I say that over and over again, anyone who asks me a marketing question, I say, who's your target market? And then like, what's their situation? And then how do you know how do you do business with them based on their situation? Not what you think they want? But what are they actually needing? You know, that e commerce example is one in the coworking context. You know, I've seen others do work from home arrangements, so taking home furniture and setting up you know, Wi Fi and, you know, things that they can do from home and giving, you know, adding an abundance of new packages to that, you know, domains like, sorry, yeah, we make sure I understand it real quick. So, a coworking space and started selling the furniture or just telling people the best setup, I think they were actually renting it if they were still a member, so there'd be a monthly fee. And they have so this, you know, I did a I did, for example, I did a webinar for some folks in Nigeria, a number of coworking operators, and one of the groups, I think it was a box office hub in Nigeria, they did a work from home package. And that included, you know, in there in that particular space, a Wi Fi package, as well as the job board and some access to funding and furniture and you know, a whole number of other things. So they kind of created this ecosystem that supported their members, because at the end of the day, your members, your customers still have goals, right? And a lot of them is to is to get new customers or to still run their businesses. So if there's a gap now if they've lost an opportunity, how do you fulfill them based on their goals? And now it's just one example of a coworking space pivoting. And there's several more that I could give you, but

John Meese 13:28
Well, let's talk about those. Please. I'm, I'm in fascinated This is Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Whelan 13:32
Yeah, I mean, the Common Desk, for example, out of Texas, so I don't know how close that as to you because my being a Canadian, my us geography is a bit blurry.

John Meese 13:40
Yeah, it's a little it's a, you know, it's a small country worth away. But yeah.

Kevin Whelan 13:45
Yeah. And I love this, I love what the US has just big and diverse is. Anyway, they did an optional work from home package, whereas a lot of experience, so I think what we're seeing now is, you know, how do you create online connection? And how do you create an online experience more than anything, when you're going online, and I think this is a caveat worth mentioning. Like for them, it was an optional, pay what you want and then they throw a bunch of, you know, stuff and value at you as as much as they could package in and I see other spaces doing this as well. But anytime you're going to sell any kind of a digital online membership program of any kind, the goal isn't just to provide value, it's to help achieve an end result. So you got to really go back to like, what what are people buying because it's not they're not buying an experience for the experience sake, they're buying education to help them reach a goal they're buying, you know, if like, maybe the networking piece, the happy hours that you're doing virtually the goal is to meet people to help you achieve a business result of some kind. And I think that's the that's the biggest challenge is like, you know, if you're going to go virtual in any way, really know what outcome you're providing, and really double down on it if if it's a networking so you can get business opportunities. How do you make those relationships happen? How do you you know, create and foster that community online if that's if that's your membership, so they've done I mean a good job from what I can tell a pivoting that way and then you know, the idea is to buy time until until you can go back into the And then you've got the Riveter, for example, and other co working space, who have shut down their co working operations and double down on their online community. And they're just producing a ton of content, and they're very socially driven. And they've got a whole, you know, brand identity around around that. But, but yeah, you know, who knows what the future is for them. But a lot of these things are going online. That's the main thing.

Do you think that spaces like the Riveter will will keep the coworking site close completely? And just do digital? Or?

I have no idea. I know they raised a lot of money. So I'm sure their their stakeholders are, you know, looking to recoup some of that.

John Meese 15:32
All right. So well, let's just kind of everything you said, while it's applicable to the cvoworking industry is really, I think, helpful to small business owners at large. But is there anything as you're thinking through kind of the brick and mortar businesses that maybe you've seen in your own hometown, or you or just the business owners that you've been talking to? Is there any particular like, common theme you're seeing in terms of what people are missing in terms of their way to adapt? I mean, I mean, there's sort of like, there's one side of like, what should you do to adapt? But there's some of the stuff that everybody knows, like, I mean, everybody has a different strategy for how to do it. But everybody I know, has been hoarding cash as much as possible. There's different strategies for how to do it. But that's kind of been like step one, for a lot of people. What do you have any like counterintuitive advice, that your advice that you see people just not doing right now that they really should be?

Kevin Whelan 16:15
I think you have to kind of follow your gut a little bit as a business owner, I think, you know, number one is like, can you create more flexibility in whatever you're selling? You know, is there a way that you can deliver things that you couldn't before? Can you package things together? Can you pre sell things? So for example, like, you know, I had another client where their their business was extremely uncertain. I said, Hey, why don't we just lock in a price of x, and we'll extend it over a longer period of time versus what you're getting. So it's a similar enterprise, but maybe spread over a longer period of time. And that way, you can manage your cash flow, and we can help we can work together with you. So really, it's about getting creative about a, how do you secure as much cash as you can, both in savings, but also in locked in revenue, even if it comes at some sort of, you know, I don't like discounting. But if you can create a longer window in the lower cash flow for your clients, but they still get the same end benefit. That means you kind of secured some income for yourself, and then they've they've done the same. So it's a very fine line to walk. The other thing is like, yeah, is there you know, some people aren't worried about cash, there's a lot of businesses out there that are still spending and still want things. And, you know, is there a way that like, hey, if let's say you're in the coworking context, or even in brick and mortar, where you're selling some physical product, you're like, hey, buy our gift card today. And it's going to be worth 125% of the value in the future, or, you know, where you get an additional surplus value add so that, you know, I think, looking for opportunities to secure cash, even if it means over a longer runway, maybe even defer payments. So I've had a few clients that, you know, we've said, Okay, let's, you know, at the end of a quarter, you can pay me back for that quarter, or you know, we can, but you don't have to pay me up front, like it's my normal payment program. So really, it's about getting creative about how do we secure cash in a way that adds tons of value, and also helps helps your clients bottom line. But then also, I think the big thing is, like doing an 80/20 analysis, who are the leads coming to your business? Who are the people who are actually still asking you for stuff and listening to what they're asking for and then going back and selling them, what they're asking for or adopting like it, you know, literally treating it like a mirror, if they ask you for something you don't have it is that that could be an indicator that there's a huge market behind it. So being very receptive and adapting to what you sell, and how you sell and how you package it is interesting.

John Meese 18:14
Yeah, I love that concept you just shared of kind of using your conversations with potential customers like a mirror, like you said, where if they ask for something and you don't have it, that's an immediate trigger that maybe you should have it you know, not necessarily but you should at least consider it and evaluate it. Do you have a process for doing that? Or even just kind of like how you phrase the question, or how you kind of follow up on that. I just want to flesh that out a little bit. Cuz I think it's an important one.

Kevin Whelan 18:36
Yeah, so the thing that's going to be on my tombstone, if we remember back, you know, hopefully not soon, but in at the end of a very long life is the answers are all in your customer. So there's lots of ways to do that. One is, you know, having a chat widget on your website to get very tactical, in a marketing point of view, where people ask you questions, or you know, through a contact form or over the phone, it doesn't matter when they ask you questions, or when they ask you for something, I've always said that if I was going to be a convenience store owner, I would basically have a list. And as soon as someone asked me for something, if they asked me more than once, I'd probably go and buy it, if there's a way to do that in a low cost way. And then you become the convenience store of the people if you will, rather than the typical, you know, out of the box convenience store. So to get tactical, it's like when people ask you for something, you don't have it, you read it on the list and validate it, you know, all of my services are productize. So I published my pricing, and what that came from was selling things manually one to one over conversations and adapting it to the very specific needs of a clientele. So going back to that CMO package, and I've got advisor packages and whatever else, those all came from initial engagements that I said, Hey, this is a pretty common way of working and this is the envelope that I'm going to package it in. So those you know, so creating custom projects based on what people are asking for. And that's one part the other part would be and I've said this others is reach out to your clients more so in coworking but but not just in coworking and ask them hey, what do you need that you can't get right now? So whether going back to that e commerce example with the retailers, they need a whole bunch of things that they just couldn't easily grasp. So literally asking them hey, this is this is John, you know, the founder of x, you know, just reaching out to We normally do this, but we're also in the business of helping you achieve this result, whether that's getting supplies, whether that is running, you know, helping your business succeed, what is the biggest challenge that you know, what are the biggest challenges that you're facing right now in acquiring that end result, you know, in the nuances language of your industry, and see what they say, you know, for a lot of people in the B2B, it's getting new clients, for others in the brick and mortar, it's, you know, you got to know what you're really selling. It's not just the product at some kind of end result, whether that's an experience or something. So talking to them, asking them reaching out to your best customers.

John Meese 20:30
Yeah. Well, what about someone who, you know, recently in the US, at least, I don't know, the global numbers, I probably should, it's just hard to keep up now. But I know in the US, at least, where I think we've crossed the 30 million point in terms of people who are recently promoted from employee to entrepreneur. So to those new entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out what to do next. Do you have any advice about how to build a profitable business in any economy, I mean, advice that really doesn't, because I mean, we just got out of an in, we just got out of an economic period of time, where there was kind of money flowing all directions, and it made it seem a little easier than it normally is. And now people are saying, "Oh, this is actually really hard." So what advice do you have to the business owner or entrepreneur who's trying to figure out how to build are in the midst of this economy to build something new.

Kevin Whelan 21:15
So you talk about pivoting and evolving a business. And I think one of the one of the areas I'm working in is helping, you know, independent professionals, maybe marketing professionals, maybe just, you know, any other independent gig economy style people that were other entrepreneurs, you know, or employees before or what have you, but the name of the game with them is trying not to get, again, precious about your business idea. Instead, just trying to focus on what is it like, first of all, I think my marketing professor, when I studied entrepreneurship in school, he's like, pick your target market, and then build and create something for them, as opposed to build something and say, who wants to buy this. So it's a very counterintuitive thing, I thought he was exaggerating. And turns out he wasn't that's a, that's a great way to do it. So you know, if you're, whether you're an entrepreneur or freelancer, it's like who you want to serve? Whether that's let's say, you're in a small town x, you know, and, you know, figuring out exactly who's going to buy the thing that you want to sell or, or lose your potential addressable market and say, Well, what can I offer them based on, say, my skills and my interests? I mean, that's sort of the big thing is reverse engineering from what people actually want and are asking for, and a lot of that comes down to research. So if you know who your target market is, what are they already paying for something similar? Or if it's an online business, it's a bit easier, you can find that that niche or that niche, and then saying, like, you know, what are they asking for online? What are the reviews saying, and so a lot of research and a lot of customer interviews, and then create something, try selling things, but create something based on conversation and been based on research, and then see how that how that goes?

John Meese 22:41
Well, Kevin, has been immensely helpful. I appreciate your time and your insight, where can we find you and learn more about you and what you're up to online?

Kevin Whelan 22:48
For the coworking industry, it's And that would be the best place to do that. And then for you know, whether you're an independent professional consultant or small business, you can learn more about me on my personal website at and I'm on Twitter at Kevin C. Whelan. And that's

John Meese 23:02
okay. Well, thank you, Kevin. Appreciate your time. Keep up the good work.

Kevin Whelan 23:04
Thanks, John.

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John Meese is the author of the #1 bestseller Survive and Thrive: How to Build a Profitable Business in Any Economy (Including This One). An entrepreneur himself, John is on a mission to eradicate generational poverty by equipping entrepreneurs with the tools and training they need to build thriving businesses from scratch. He is the CEO of Cowork.Inc, co-founder of Notable, and host of the Thrive School podcast.

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