Don Elliott, owner and CEO of local marketing company Gravitate, was faced with two options when the pandemic struck and landed a “sucker punch” to his industry: He could hunker down and try to ride out the market with minimal staff making a barely acceptable profit margin, or he could take a riskier route.
“We hustled, and we got creative,” he said.
The company’s tactics allowed it to grow its workforce about 50 percent to 32 employees, and business is increasing, allowing the company to have one of its biggest financial years. It has even started a remote office in Silicon Valley as part of an expansion.
“We’ve had a huge uptick in business,” Elliott said. “We’re outperforming 2019 by a lot. A significant margin.”
Elliott and Gravitate’s “creativity” in the pandemic meant a few things: renegotiating contracts to allow businesses to pay significantly less for the same amount of service and taking a more assertive role on how its clients should market themselves. It cut directly into the company’s profit, although it did receive two PPP loans.
Once the pandemic struck, a groundswell of clients asked Gravitate to cancel their contracts. Elliott said he instructed employees to allow those clients to cancel if they wanted, but give them an option to “cut their retainer in half but continue to deliver the same amount of work,” Elliott said. In exchange, Gravitate would be allowed to have more charge on its clients’ strategy.
Before, those businesses hired Gravitate more to give advice and collaborate on how they wanted to market their product on social media, ads and such. Elliot said there were usually companies with employees who wanted “feature requests,” which are parts of a website with less effectiveness than straight-forward marketing.
“People would hire us as experts but not truly relinquish control,” he said. “We’d have clients who want to deviate from our plan to focus on feature requests. As opposed to: let’s do a simpler version of it and instead create content that will promote this thing.”
Part of Gravitate’s plan for clients during the pandemic was to focus on e-commerce, which has skyrocketed in sales in general. Some of its clients with a large storefront presence are generating more revenue with online sales, Elliot said.
Elliott joined Gravitate in 2012, when the company bought Elliott’s company, Elliott Design. Elliott became executive director of Gravitate in 2013, and he left Gravitate in 2016 to be a consultant in the digital marketing industry. On March 2, just weeks before the pandemic struck, he bought Gravitate and became its CEO.
Colleen Pyle, director of client experience, said that the company lost no clients due to the pandemic, and the company’s new business was “primarily smaller shops who saw what was happening: they wanted to get online or they didn’t see a future,” she said.
The bigger clients generally wanted to change their priorities with how they contracted Gravitate, she said.
Employees are allowed to work remotely, at their will, Elliott said. At any given time at its headquarters at 1207 Washington St. Suite 215, there are about four employees who regularly come into the office, and others who trickle in from time to time.
Elliott said he is still considering the best option for returning to the office, but remote work is part of the permanent plans for the future.
“We will still require a level of in-person office time,” he said. “We are more profitable and more efficient with a little bit of face time.”
In five to 10 years, Elliott plans to hire enough new employees for a team of 70 to 100 people, and a “scattering of satellite offices,” but Gravitate’s headquarters will always be in downtown Vancouver, he said.
The company is also going through an upper-level leadership change with its former CEO Colten Tidwell, leaving for a job in Utah. Elliott will fill that role and disperse some of its duties to a broader leadership team, he said.
Elliott plans on getting Gravitate more involved with the community; already, he gives specific paid days off to employees for volunteer work. He plans “team community days,” which involve things like volunteering at a local homeless shelter.
Working with more interns is also in the company’s plan. In the past, the company had as many as 10 interns working at once, but Elliott wants to see two to four interns working at Gravitate.