Maria Ross is a brand strategist, speaker, author, and the founder of Red Slice, a branding agency based in Northern California that helps entrepreneurs, startups and fast-growth small businesses craft irresistible brand stories. She’s also a brain injury survivor, a wife, mother, and woman who has always been fascinated with human beings and how we think, feel, and heal.
Maria has shared her insights on branding, marketing and human connection on MSNBC, ABC News, KUOW (Seattle NPR) and in Entrepreneur, as well as numerous podcasts and talk radio shows.
She has delighted audiences at The New York Times Small Business Summit, BlogHer, Chamber of Commerce and many other conferences, summits and events. Maria writes for Entepreneur.com and Huffington Post. In addition to working on her current book, Empathy at Work, she’s the author of Branding Basics for Small Business and Rebooting My Brain.
Maria believes that empathy will save our marriages, our economy, our country, and the world. (Along with laughter, fresh air, and maybe a nice glass of Cabernet.)
Where is your business located?
San Francisco Bay Area
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I've spent my entire career in consulting and marketing, across all facets of marketing.
Branding - telling the story of an organization and connecting to customers in a meaningful way - was always my favorite part! Working on both the client and agency sides, in B2B and B2C, I got to see marketing from many angles. After being a Silicon Valley marketing exec for years, I got tired of marketing that felt bland, jargony and non-human.
Companies forget they are marketing to HUMANS and that people deserve honest, compelling, smart marketing that doesn't just add to the noise, but that inspires and delights. For me, marketing is about elevating the truth of your story and now that I work for myself, I can work the way I want to work. When my last company had layoffs in 2008, it was the push I needed to go off on my own after many years of dreaming about it. I haven't looked back!
What is the first thing you do in the morning?
My morning routine has changed, now that I have a 4 year-old and my day always starts at 6 am, even on weekends. Some days, I shower before my son gets up but on workout days, I just throw on my gear.
My must-have is a mug of hot tea with milk and honey. Always. We make breakfast (eggs or oatmeal, fresh fruit, sweet potatoes)...a good, healthy breakfast is a non-negotiable in my life anymore (women need to eat well, damn it) and we sit and eat together, talking, laughing, singing songs.This ritual has become precious to me.
I do NOT check email before my day gets going. I think part of my son's morning ritual is making Mommy crazy, as I pester him to stop dawdling, brush his teeth, and get dressed. My workday starts at 8:30, and if it's a workout day, 11 am.
What does your work day look like and how do you maximize your productivity?
Oh I still struggle with this one! It starts as mentioned, with my morning routine and then every day is different, depending on if I have client calls or meetings. I try to keep a running list of weekly tasks, but note my 3 main daily priorities that HAVE to get done and focus on those.
I will check my email as a first step, clear out some easy tasks and then settle into whatever is on my priority list. I try to get complex or deadline work done in the morning. But if I have a big project or deliverable due, I won't even check email until noon so I can plow through and get it done. I'm trying to do this more! I save my more leisurely tasks for the afternoon, when my brain is not as sharp: catching up on email, viewing training videos, social media check-ins, etc. Some days, my priorities are writing content, preparing a marketing campaign or recording videos. Others, it's preparing client deliverables or presentations.
As much as I can, I try to "batch" my content creation on a set day. I also have been working on doing my most important, complex work first thing (pay myself first) either early in the week or first thing in the morning, before emergencies get in the way.
And...I always stop for a lunch break. So vital. I have lunch away from my laptop, usually watching Jeopardy! I wrap up my workday around 4 to take my dog for a walk and then pick up my son. I've been trying to approach my planning by thinking about what will make me feel like I had a successful day or week (keeping the end in mind), and focusing on accomplishing those things.
How do you bring your great business ideas to the world to serve your clients?
I blog fairly often, do public speaking at conferences and events, and pursue media opportunities. I also have a column in Entrepreneur.com and Huffington Post.
I have been doing more posting on LinkedIn and Medium this past year to get my ideas out there, and those have been really helpful to my brand visibility and sharing valuable content.
What is one trend in business that excites you?
I might sound like a luddite, but as much as I'm excited about what we can do with online and social media to reach a larger audience without barriers, I'm excited to see a backlash for more face-to-face interaction.
We can use technology to facilitate this (I use Zoom video and it's been a game-changer) but our technology distraction has worried me for a very long time. You have to get up from behind your screen every now and then and interact with people...or at least use technology tools that enable you to see facial expressions, body language and other vital communication cues.
Networking is a vital part of your brand and marketing plan.I worry that we're losing our human connections and I'm glad to see the pendulum swinging the other way back to this important business component.
What is one strategy that helped you grow your business?
See above: Networking! Referrals are vital to my business. But also I would say my ability to create content and build a body of work out there that showcase my perspective and thought leadership. being able to write contributed articles and do media interviews has really helped my business - and I still get contacted from online articles I wrote years ago, so they can live forever!
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
How much room do we have?! Of many mistakes, my biggest one was not accurately calculating and accounting for my labor costs, since i provide a service.
I thought my labor cost was my billable rate and it's not the same thing! I assumed a small mark-up on my subcontractors would cover my time, and I was soooooo wrong.
I finally figured out (from finance gurus like you, Debbie!) how to calculate my hourly labor cost, determine markup and estimate how to reach my revenue targets. Being able to put a dollar value on every hour helps me determine good uses of my time versus when it makes sense to outsource or say no.
What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to this community?
Remember to bring your unique philosophy, point of view and personality to your brand. This is the only way to make your business unique when there are hundreds of others offering the same thing. Only YOU can deliver it the way you do, so differentiate based on that.
What is the best $100 you have recently spent? on What? Why?
Every dollar I spend on my virtual assistant. She saves me a TON of time doing everything from setting up lead pages and formatting emails to helping me look up inspirational quotes for blog content!
What is one piece of software or app that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
So many! Zoom Video for video conferencing and Buffer for social media scheduling top my list.
What is the best business book you have read? Why?
I love any business book by Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick and Power of Moments are among my faves. And they apply to so much more than just business.
What is your favorite quote?
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." - Eleanor Roosevelt
"Do what you feel in your heart to be right-for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do and damned if you don't." - Eleanor Roosevelt
"Well-behaved women seldom make history." - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Who inspires you in business and why?
Everyone from Richard Branson to Oprah Winfrey to strong, smart women in other professions, such as Meryl Streep and . I am also inspired by Sheryl Sandberg, Jessica Alba, and countless "non-famous" women business owners I know who are absolutely killing it.
What are your thoughts on work-life balance?
It is a myth! Does not exist. If it did, what, we're giving 11.3% of our best to everything in our life at one time?! I much prefer to look at prioritization. Some weeks, work will need your attention due to a deadline, Other weeks, your child really needs your attention or your dog needs quality time.
It's about moving the levers and figuring out go to give focused attention to whatever in your life needs it at a given time. Stop multitasking, people! It doesn't work!
What are the 3 business lessons you’ve learned so far?
1. When you need help, ASK. Someone, somewhere knows the answer so stop spinning your wheels and wasting your time. Be smart.
2. Patience is not about stagnation. It means understanding that small steps can be taken every day to get to a goal. Something is better than nothing.
3. Sit down and define your values. Then, run your business according to those values. That is what will build your brand because it will be authentic and real. If your work does not align to your values, stop doing it.
What is your workspace like?
Oh my, do I have to answer that?! It's kind of a hot mess right now, with piles everywhere. But I invested in a really nice desk, rug and space because I can't do good work in an ugly environment.
Last thing you do at the end of your work day?
Tidy up my desk so I don't come back to chaos. And make a list of what I want to accomplish tomorrow so I don't have to keep it all in my head. If something didn't get done today, I just let it go and move it to tomorrow. No guilt. No beating myself up. We are only human!
What is the one thing you can't leave home without?
Unfortunately, my phone. I need to not just be in touch, but have the ability to browse adorable baby pictures of my son when I'm having a bad day! And I need Waze to get anywhere anymore, it's ridiculous.
What superpower would you love to have to use for good?
The power to touch someone's heart and instantly make them feel empathy for others.
If horrible people could just take their blinders off and truly realize the impact their actions have on others, they would fall down and weep.
Number of unread emails right now?
Anything else you want to add?
In more than 10 years of running my own business, I have learned that you have to learn to let go of perfection and other silly things to which you used to so tightly cling. It just all slows you down and makes you crazy.
Focus on what is in your control and what truly matters or moves you forward. Don't worry about all the unread emails! If they were that important, you would have read them.
How can other entrepreneurs connect with you?
If you are reading this and are interested in being featured in the Truth Telling from the Trenches series - apply here.