Martha Stewart and Her Recipe for a Successful Business

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Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia

Martha Stewart was one of the keynote speakers at HubSpot’s Inbound14 this year. I was curious to see how she’d be received by the Millennials and Gen Xers who made up the vast majority of her audience. After all, her expertise is in traditional media. Well, she impressed right from the start by understanding precisely who she was speaking to. She filled a food processor with spinach, ginger, pineapple, cucumber, and mint and juiced it up. Simultaneously, people were handing 1oz shots of the concoction out to the 10,000 plus conventioneers. All of a sudden she’s reached the audience with humor, and by proving that she understands what’s important to them.

I’m watching this presentation as both a digital marketer and as an entrepreneur. As she told her story, I immediately saw that she epitomized the spirit and acumen that businesspeople need to succeed. She made her fortune by doing something that she loved, and directed that passion by helping a market that was yearning for it.

Martha Stewart’s mother was a great cook, and her father was an avid gardener. This is what she knew how to do, and she loved to do it. She wasn’t part of the 1% growing up. As a teen, she babysat for some New York Yankees, like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. That’s when she saw how the other half lived. Yes, she was a beautiful model for Chanel when she was a young woman, but that’s how she earned her way through college. Between the babysitting and the modeling, Martha Stewart experienced wealth second hand, and understood that what many in the middle class want is to live like the upper class.

She got a good education from Barnard College, earning her degrees after marriage, and began a catering and crafts business out of her home. Her husband was president of a publishing house, Harry N. Abrams, and he arranged for her to cater a publishing event. That catering job led to her first book, and she was off on her career!

So many people start a business with a concept, but they don’t really know the field they are moving into, and/or they don’t love it. ‘This sounds like a good idea, so I’ll do it.’ This is going to be your life! For any business to succeed, as Martha Stewart said, ‘You have to have passion, and a curiosity to learn.’ If you think you know all you’ll ever need to know about something when you start your business, think again.

What has distinguished Ms. Stewart in her field is her ambition to learn all that she can about something by experts. Fostering an opinion without the knowledge to support it is a recipe for failure. If she wants to know about blueberries, she talks to growers in Maine. If she’s writing about cranberries, she’s going to the bogs in Rhode Island. When she was arranging a wedding on Lake Winnipesaukee for her book Weddings, Martha Stewart went to a local wine retailer, who recommended a local caterer, who suggested a local linen service ‘- She went to all the local experts for advice. I know this first hand, because Gary Locke, our distinguished digital marketing blogger, was the wine retailer that she consulted.

Martha Stewart branding

The best story that I heard from her was how she changed K-Mart. In 1997 K-Mart was the most successful retailer in the country, and Martha Stewart was a very successful businesswoman, but when she first met with them, her question was why did they sell only dark sheets? Everything, she noticed, was in dark tones. Wasn’t that awfully drab?

Their explanation was that their customers weren’t well off, and didn’t do their laundry as often as the upper class. Darker sheets hid the dirt. After recovering from the shock of this remarkable statement, Martha set out to prove them wrong. We now can all select from baby blue and mint green sheets on the store shelves, without forking over most of a paycheck. It’s the quintessential case of a businessperson who knows what her customer wants.

I have the feeling that Ms. Stewart read Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore, a book that still resonates with me as one of the best books about entrepreneurs. Essentially, Moore states that there is a disconnect ‘- a chasm, if you please ‘- between the business visionary and the pragmatist. The path to success is by overcoming that disconnect, and continuously cloning your business. Move your business from one market to another, but maintain your presence in the target market so that you always have your base. Crafts and cooking and gardening lead to wedding planning, which leads to books, which leads to magazines, which leads to television. Martha Stewart has even moved from showing you how to decorate your home, to helping you sell it with a real estate venture. From this interlinked approach comes the empire known as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

I walked away from her keynote impressed with her approach to branding and business, and she had a lot that those eager young entrepreneurs could learn from.

Note: We have added the video of Ms. Stewart’s appearance at Inbound ’14 in a comment section below.

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