Angie and Matt Howell of Farmhouse Creative: Suck it Up, Let’s Do This
The Howells know small. They grew up in small towns. They have a small office in a big building: Madjax*, the makers space in downtown Muncie.
You can’t miss it. It’s the only one whose walls are covered in bright green paint from floor to ceiling, like a beacon of hope for the mom n’ pop struggling to keep up with marketing demands.
“I treat their money like my money. We want them to look good,” Angie said, when I interviewed her and Matt in December 2017.
(Okay, “interview” is a bit too formal of a word. I’d been writing for Farmhouse clients for four years. If chatting with your coworkers about their family and complaining about the printer acting up again while sprawling on the company couch counts as an “interview”, then sure.)
A USP THAT’S MORE UNIQUE THAN IT SOUNDS
The Howells’ USP (unique selling proposition) is nothing fancy. They set themselves apart from other marketers by doing the things they know small businesses care about: responding promptly to service requests; executing orders quickly; exercising fairness in customer service; and ensuring quality control.
As an example of that last one, Matt gestured to a stack of hundreds of boxed business cards on the floor beside him.
“The customer ordered these on Monday. Here they are, but we said we’d have them by early next week. Here’s why. They’re not right. The color is all wrong, so we’re sending them back. We’ll have it right for the client by the deadline,” Matt said. “That’s what we mean by quality control.”
Of course, every small business owner needs an answer to the question, “How much is this going to cost me?” Matt answers that question with a story.
Matt’s father was a farmer in his hometown of aptly-named Farmland, just down the road from Muncie on SR 32 toward Ohio. He remembers how his dad would sell hay bales for $1 when everybody else was selling them for $2.
“He saw charging those higher prices as screwing people over. He taught me that in a small town, people are supposed to take care of people. That’s what we do.”
HOW THEY BUILT THE FARMHOUSE
Like any small business, it was no cakewalk getting Farmhouse Creative off the ground for Angie, its founder. She was doing project management for Integrity Marketing in Fishers when she decided it was time to do her own thing.
For one thing, it was no fun for her and Matt to be separated newlyweds. After their marriage in 2011, Matt was still doing web design out of his home office in Farmland, where he lived with his three kids. Angie wanted the freedom to work close to her family.
In early 2013, she made her move to go independent.
“I sent a letter to 250 businesses in Muncie to announce the new business. I met with 100 prospects that year,” Angie said. “All while being pregnant.”
That’s right, while Matt was working 12-hour days to make ends meet and Angie was beating the bushes to grow her business fast, the Howells’ baby daughter was on her way.
“The baby was born in November 2013. Angie was back to work the next day,” Matt said, grinning with dumbfounded admiration.
“When people tell me they can’t get something done because they’re under the weather, sometimes I’m like, I built my business while I was pregnant and basically sick all the time,” Angie said. “You know. Suck it up.”
That said, just like their clients who don’t have the capacity to do their own marketing, everybody has their limits. While Angie had the print side covered, Matt joined in early 2014 to do website design, maintenance and manage digital marketing for clients.
As they continued to grow, the Howells realized they needed help with project management. That’s where their third employee, Amy Leffingwell comes in. The Howells hired Amy in summer 2017 to take on some of the design work, make product deliveries and to act in a CSM capacity for Farmhouse’s 350+ clients.
THE SECRETS OF SMALL
If you’re thinking, “Surely three people can’t handle ALL the marketing needs of that many clients,” you’re right. That’s where freelancers come in.
There are basically two kinds of freelancers a small shop like Farmhouse Creative needs. The first is back office support. The Howells routinely rely on freelance developers and designers to perform the tasks as directed by Matt on the digital side and by Angie on the print/graphic art side.
As I listened to the Howells describe this dynamic – they take the lead, freelancers execute – I realized the work I’ve done for them for the last few years feels different.
“Right, it’s totally different,” Matt acknowledged. “Content is something we have to offload to someone who knows how to take care of the client. You get the detail, you’re the storyteller. You’re more of a partner, an extension of the Farmhouse.”
Hiring a freelance content writer requires a great deal of trust, because they are by necessity client-facing. You have to be able to say, “This person represents us and our ability to represent you, to capture your voice, to tell your story.”
ON BEING UN-MAD MEN
If they’re going to put that much trust in someone, why not create a position and hire someone to do it?
That could put the Howells on a slippery slope toward what they don’t want to be: a full-scale marketing agency.
“We want to help clients plan out the year, to make a marketing strategy, but we want to remain small enough to help small businesses and nonprofits affordably,” Matt explained. “Our niche is to develop and execute a plan, not own the whole thing.”
In other words, they don’t want to be the mammoth Sterling Cooper (… Draper Price) agency from Mad Men. They don’t want to tell businesses who they are and what they should be doing, or to manage their national media buys.
They want to stay true to who they are, a small business serving small businesses. That means never requiring clients to invest in packages that bundle in copywriting services. Instead, to whatever extent the client wants to DIY, they can.
THE ACE UP THEIR SLEEVE
But when a client wants or needs a professional copywriter to help capture and retain an audience, to help convert attention to sales, sales to loyalty, and loyalty to advocacy over time, the Farmhouse will always have a freelancer on call.
Small and nimble, helping others remain small and nimble. That’s what drives Angie Rogers-Howell.
“I know what it’s like to be a small business, to work hard without a lot of resources,” Angie said. “I just want people to succeed.”
Amen. See why I like these folks?
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*Not anymore! They actually announced their move to the Lofts at Roberts the day after I published this story. I’m pretty sure they did it just to prank me.