Bell + Ivy is only three years old, but CEO Cynthia Johnson has already taken it global. Inspired by a people-first approach to marketing, Johnson utilized a business credit card to get her firm off the ground.
As co-founder and CEO of Bell + Ivy – a marketing and public relations firm headquartered in Santa Monica, California – Cynthia Johnson knows how to get a message out. Although the firm is just three years old, she and her partner, Zachary Binder, have gone global.
Bell + Ivy works with a variety of small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) and well-known corporations worldwide, specializing in digital marketing and communications. “If it’s difficult to understand, we take it on,” says Johnson.
“The world is moving quickly and content is everywhere. We don’t work the old way – with a pitch and then a proposal, without any initial information gathering, where everything is slow-paced and a cookie-cutter formula. We’re fast and flexible, which is what brands want and need in the current marketing landscape.”
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Economics are crucial as well: Bell + Ivy actively avoids doubling up on services or strategies that don’t directly impact a company’s bottom line. “That’s what sets us apart,” says Johnson. “We always ask what the company is trying to achieve, what currently exists, what’s working, what isn’t, and then identify what has been overlooked.”
“We don’t overspend; we build on what they’ve already done,” says Johnson. “It’s a personalized service, and we deliver campaigns and strategies that help brands and businesses reach their goals. We don’t deliver what the client wants, we deliver what the client needs – and on a good day, those two things are the same.”
This strategy has been the key to its quick success. Today, Bell + Ivy has 11 full-time employees and 35 worldwide contractors. Johnson has since been racking up accolades as well – including being named as one of the top personal branding experts by Entrepreneur. Her first book, “Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding,” was published in 2019 by Penguin Random House, and Johnson has now become a much sought-after speaker.
Along the way, Johnson and Binder recognized that Bell + Ivy needed a business credit card that could keep up with their company’s growing success.
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Were there any surprises you had to deal with in the beginning?
There were a number of them! We were self-funded and for the most part, we took on the right clients at the right time. However, we have come across situations where we did have to prioritize our business over cash flow by letting the wrong clients go.
That was a learning experience. Now we vet everyone diligently to make sure we will work well together.
Were there any costs you didn’t anticipate?
It’s not that we didn’t anticipate them, but sometimes we were taken aback by some of the staggering number of fees and taxes that business owners are faced with. For example, we have to pay 1% of gross receipts. We are also taxed on the office assets we own. In addition to paying sales tax on supplies, we also have to pay another fee again just for having it!
Then there’s the cost of doing business with global clients. When we take payments from them, there are transaction fees – and then discussions over which of us will pay.
We do accept checks, and they’re great, but we found that we had to have enough of a financial float because of them. Believe it or not, checks do get lost in the mail!
How have you been using credit cards for the business?
We opened The Business Platinum Card® from American Express when Bell + Ivy started. The benefits are endless, especially for travel. In the first year, alone, I was in 22 different countries – which amounts to about three weeks in the air. Being able to get into an airport lounge and call the company if something goes wrong is important.
Also, the security this card offers is invaluable. What if someone robs you? Things go wrong. You need to feel safe when you’re traveling, and a credit card like this has your back.
Zachary and I share the account, and we charge every hard cost each month. That can be tens of thousands of dollars a month. Because of this, the points game is going strong. I usually use them for flight upgrades.
In fact, they came in very handy when I got very sick in India. There was no way I could sit on the plane – I needed to lie down – so I used the points to fly first class all the way back to California.
Do you ‘DIY’ the accounting or have you hired someone?
We have an accounting service and Zachary handles a lot of the financials, but we both have oversight. We aren’t leveraged at all. The accountant looks at our costs and sends an email with everything broken down. Once we get it, we cover payroll and the American Express bill.
We always pay the credit card on time and in full, but it’s easy to do because our accountant looks at our financials months in advance. Her perspective is necessary, and it’s a relief to get it. I see every charge that goes on the card – we’re on top of all that – but our accountant’s follow-up, follow-through and advice are invaluable.
Where are you now with the business?
Our first years were all about growth, and now Bell + Ivy is everywhere. We’re now at a place where we can sustain, grow more slowly, spend more time on relationships and grow with even more meaningful campaigns. We’ve actually slowed down on international travel and are focusing on national growth.
Is there anything you wish you could do over?
The one that comes to mind is the first name of the company. When we launched it was Ipseity Media. It was terrible because it was always mispronounced. Here we were with this amazing marketing company with a bad name! We changed it quickly, though.
I think the other regret is fear. There were incidences where we didn’t push hard enough to get what we wanted. I learned that it’s always worth a shot if it seems like a fit, but we let some clients go when we should have fought to keep them. I sometimes wonder where we would be today if we didn’t do that.
Any advice to burgeoning business owners?
Figure out what you’re not good at and find someone who is. I got that advice from a professor. It will take you all day to do the thing you’re not good at. Hire someone you trust to do it instead.
Zachary and I knew each other before we started Bell + Ivy, and we are a perfect team because we have opposite skill sets.
What have you learned about borrowing money that you can pass on?
I learned early on that credit cards are great for cash flow when you are floating cash and waiting for payments to clear. Payroll must get paid even if you haven’t been yet. That’s being a business owner, and using a credit card gives you that buffer on the occasion when you need more time.
A credit card is also a great way to keep expenses in one place. Everything you spend is all there on the statement. But there are pitfalls, too. You can overspend with it.
However, I’ve found that usually comes from isolation. In business, you have to be transparent about your transactions. If you’re embarrassed to show your accountant how much you’ve charged on your card, you’re going in the wrong direction. It’s smart to have multiple people looking at the financials. It will help you be responsible. So, my advice is, don’t be alone with your card in business!