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It’s time to get to know North Star! 

Each month, we’ll introduce you to some of our amazing team members. We’re kicking things off with our intrepid CEOs, Jessi Honard + Marie Parks

Jessi and Marie, two friends who’d bonded over a love of Animorphs and the outdoors, decided to combine their creative forces and go into business together in 2010, to help people write resumes and cover letters. 

Now, as the business enters 2021 fresh off an unforgettable year {in so many ways}, Marie and Jessi share their thoughts on how far they’ve come, what they’ve learned, and what’s in store for North Star.

Marie Parks (left) and Jessi Honard (right)

Q: It’s been a crazy year for the entire world, and North Star was no exception. NSMS certainly had its lows, but then had an incredible rebound. What’s the year been like for you two?

Jessi: I think the biggest thing that has come out of it is that early on, Marie and I had grand plans about planning ahead and figuring out what we wanted. We didn’t go into it saying ‘this is going to be our best year ever,’ or anything like that. We went into the year saying ‘this is a year where we sustain ourselves,’ where we maintain what we did in 2019, which was a huge growth year for us. And then March happened, and COVID happened.

There were several clients we were several months ahead of on content, and it was like ‘alright, we’re throwing all of that out the window because none of it is relevant anymore.’ Even if we weren’t ahead on content, we were ahead on strategy, and suddenly entire industries had been upended.

We also lost about 70% of our average monthly revenue in March, because of industry shifts and revenue losses our clients sustained.

As a result, we had to reevaluate not only how we were serving our clients, but how Marie and I were showing up in the business.

We are very proud of the fact that we didn’t have to let anyone go, but we did reduce hours. And people really stepped up, shifting their roles to support what unexpected needs we had of them, given the strange circumstances.

Marie: One thing that was critical for us bouncing back in 2020 was recognizing how we could serve clients in an ongoing manner.

As every business in the world was impacted by COVID, the need for content creation, strategic content creation, adaptive content creation, became more and more apparent, and the need to outsource that became more apparent for CEOs who were now juggling even more.

If their content creation and strategy could be taken off their plate, that was a huge help for them.

That need was something we were able to fulfill this year by introducing our content retainers. Not only did that serve our clients, but it helped us create a sense of growing stability for us.

Q: As CEOs, what did 2020 teach you about running a business? 

Marie: Resilience is not to be underestimated. It is okay to fail, and it is okay to try things without having any idea how they’re going to turn out. It’s okay to ask for grace.

There’s opportunity for compassion when things get really tough, and our content can provide that. People are craving communication, relationships, and touch points when things are really difficult. So that made it a really nice year for us to launch the Brand Your Voice podcast.

It’s also why it was a great year for us to introduce our retainers, because we’re able to develop a deeper relationship with our clients. It was a year for relationships, in a lot of ways.

Jessi: We also learned that as CEOs, it’s important for us to kindly and compassionately establish and maintain boundaries. For the better part of about eight years, it was the Marie + Jessi show. We were interfacing directly with the clients, we were creating their strategy, writing their content, handling edits, all of the things.

Now we’re in a position where we have a team who can support us, so Marie and I can look towards the future of the business. Being able to step back, to be a CEO and focus on the vision of the company, was a big lesson, because we are so used to being our own employees.

Q: This year was an incredibly powerful one for social justice issues, with nationwide protests and marches over topics from Black Lives Matter and racial equality, to police brutality, gender equality, and more. What is the importance to you of running a socially-conscious business in this era?

Jessi: Marie and I have always said that there is no such thing as an apolitical business. If you say nothing, you’re still saying something. If you choose to remain “neutral”, you’re still taking a stand.

Marie and I got together when a lot of this was coming to a head to talk about what message we want people to hear. What do we want people to know when they approach North Star? And how are we going to carry that through in everything that we do?

We recognize that there’s a difference between saying something because everyone is, and actually weaving it into the fabric of your company. We have to make sure that everything is in alignment on multiple levels, not just with us but with the people we work with. If someone comes to us and says they want to put out content that’s not aligned with our values, we have to be confident enough in our position and in our beliefs to say, “You are not a fit for us, I’m sorry, we are not working together.”

Marie: Gone are the days of “politics has no place at the dinner table,” especially when it comes to human rights. My last, formal, at-a-desk job was at a Holocaust museum, and I really took what I learned there to heart, that being a bystander is just as harmful as being a perpetrator. That is what silence is — bystanderism —  especially in human rights issues. So we’re taking allyship as a verb very seriously.

We have an opportunity to teach our clients, too, and have a conversation with them about their values. Our work gives our clients the confidence to speak up. We had clients tell us this year, “I’m feeling inspired and empowered to speak up now about stuff that I wasn’t before.”

Q: What has the company done to take a more proactive standpoint in those areas?

Jessi: On the internal side, we’ve been in conversations with some DEI consultants because Marie and I recognize that we are absolutely not the experts on this and we want to be able to guide the company, but we need guides ourselves who are experts in this area.

Before anybody even books a call with us, we have our anti-racism statement and our diversity statement on that form. It lets them know right up front, if I’m filling out this form to work with these people, I have to agree to these values that the company holds. We have it on our about page on our website, so it’s very front and center and clear.

Marie: We are conversing with DEI experts, and we are planning a DEI training, plus I’m a member of a DEI group for business owners just to help with day-to-day integration.

We also discovered Big City Mountaineers this year, and have become a corporate sponsor for them. This nonprofit supports youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, and provides leadership development in the outdoors. It’s a great opportunity for us to mesh together our two big giving areas of both diversity/inclusivity/equity with the outdoors.


Q: The two of you have been in business together for a decade now, first with Owl Eyes Creative, which evolved into North Star. When you turned Owl Eyes into North Star, did you ever see it becoming more than just the two of you?

Marie: We never thought our company would be bigger than the two of us because we’d never broken down our process. Our work felt intuitive to us, and we thought, you can’t really teach this stuff, you’ve just got to learn it in the trenches. It wasn’t really until we decided to start codifying our process that the doors began to open.

Jessi: It was really a panic moment that led to us growing our team. It wasn’t one of those “Ah yes, I think we’re finally in a position where we can hire help and start teaching them our process” moments. It was very much “Oh shit, we have a volume of work that Marie and I are not physically capable of doing, we need help, let’s see if we can bring some people in.” Which felt like a really big risk to us at the time, because we’d never tried to outsource our process before.

So that’s when we brought on Erin [Venable] and Maggie and allowed them to start being fully responsible for some of the client work. In hiring them and being able to outsource some of those things, we realized “Oh wait, we CAN actually create some systems and frameworks around what we do.” We had to take the knowledge out of our heads and put it into theirs somehow. And we’re like okay, if we can do it with these two people, how much more could we grow and how many more people could we serve?

Q: Now North Star employs more than a dozen people between full-time and part-time staff. How has this year of growth changed your vision for the business and what it could/should/will be in the future?

Marie: At the moment, we’re not planning to expand further. We value the fact that the company is still small enough now that we can have a relationship with everybody on the team, and have our finger on the pulse so that we can resolve issues, support people, and feel like they can really feel safe coming to us if there’s a concern.

Jessi: We want to make sure we have the support we need to run the business successfully without growing too fast. There’s a trend amongst CEOs and business owners of prioritizing growth, prioritizing this consistent “I’m going to double my revenue every year until I’m making $80 million.” Obviously bringing in money and having consistent revenue and making a profit, all of those things are important to running a business. But when it comes to running a business that actually has the culture that we want to promote, that feels cohesive, that stands for the values that we stand for, having a company that isn’t growing constantly is really important. Growth is also measured in how cohesive a team is.

Q: Quite a few of the businesses North Star assists are those going through similar growth periods. What have the two of you learned from this growth process that will help you assist businesses moving forward?

Marie: Probably a day doesn’t go by that I don’t recommend Clockwork by Mike Michalowicz to another CEO. That and Run Like Clockwork have been, hands-down, the best investment we’ve ever made, because we were scaling without experience as managers.

Jessi: I think, too, that Brand Voice ties into this. It’s what we’re known for as a business. Yes, things like content retainers have been super helpful as far as introducing stability and whatnot, but what allows those content retainers to be successful comes down to Brand Voice.

For a company in a growth period, outsourcing content is scary and new. Sometimes they’ve done it before and it’s gone terribly wrong, and so they may be a little nervous about it. Being able to go to these clients and tell them we have processes in place to make outsourcing content feel less scary is a huge relief for them. They know they’re going to continue to be represented authentically even after they’ve handed off this one piece of their business.

Jessi (left) and Marie (right)

Q: What have you accomplished recently that you’re most proud of with North Star?

Marie: We’ve had our best year ever in terms of straight-up revenue. That’s very exciting considering the blow of COVID. Also, I’m proud of the new retainer system. It’s a win-win offer that really supports North Star and really supports the clients.

Jessi: I think one of the biggest wins that I see looking back was when we hired two new writers, Jessica Lancaster and Madeline Crone. The two of them integrated into the team super fast. We hired them during a busy season and were like “Hi, we have a ton of stuff, take it all.”

In the past, when we’ve hired writers there’s been a little more lead time, and so it was really good for me to see that not only could we bring on a couple new writers and get them comfortable producing content fairly quickly, but also that all of this comes back to where we started with trying to systematize what was in our heads, especially our Brand Voice process.

To achieve the vision we have for the company, we have to make sure we have a solid process in place to teach people, and the entirety of the North Star writing team has been our testing ground for that. It’s a huge win to get their feedback and use it to catapult us forward.

Q: Let’s look at the industry for a minute. What is the biggest challenge in the branding and strategy space?

Jessi: I got an interesting email from a copywriter that I follow, talking about how stocks for Fiverr and Upwork went up 700% or so in 2020. There’s this massive growth in the freelancing industry.

That’s both really good and it raises a red flag, and here’s why.

Businesses need to have a consistent brand and a consistent brand voice. A lot of companies are responding to COVID by moving online, by creating new opportunities for themselves in this digital marketing world, and they’re often falling into the trap of “let me just find a cheap freelancer to do XYZ.”

Freelancers in turn, especially freelance writers, are swamped with potential projects… but historically, freelancers are underpaid and under supported. Many of these freelancers are incredible at what they do, but they might not have the processes and systems, or the depth and breadth of knowledge to support their work.

We are definitely also feeling those effects of so many more people looking to establish themselves online, and I think that will continue to be true moving into the future. I see that as an opportunity, not just to help business owners create compelling content, but also to help other writers do it in a way where they’re setting themselves up for success.

Marketing and content creation is going to continue to be valuable, and I think Brand Voice is going to be more important than ever, because there are more people out there than ever. I think people are looking for real connection and real stories and, like Marie said earlier, real relationships. That is a hard thing to get right if you’re outsourcing your content. You have to have the voice in order to be able to do that.

Q: What have you learned about what other companies don’t do well that you see North Star really succeeding in?

Marie: A lot of our colleagues in this field have intake processes, and they often take an extensive look at the existing content of the client. And that’s helpful for grounding yourself into what had been happening. But if they’re coming to you wanting something fresh and new, if they’ve grown and need evolved messaging, that past content isn’t all that helpful, and it pulls the messaging backwards.

Our research process is much more based in conversations with the CEO and leaning into the new direction of the messaging and the company’s vision.

Q: What do you identify as the biggest area of need for North Star moving forward, and where do you see yourselves focusing your resources in the near future?

Jessi: Going back to that huge, skyrocketing number of new freelancers, I see a lot of passionate people who want to do a really good job for their clients.

I also see an unfortunate opportunity for a lot of freelancers to get taken advantage of. Not through any fault of their own or the client’s, but through how writing as a profession is often perceived.

Writers are constantly told to have a “Plan B”. Writing is seen as the type of service where you hire someone as cheap as possible, get the content, and then move on with your life. There’s a lot of re-teaching that needs to happen at all levels.

Business owners who are looking to hire writers need to learn the ROI for having an ongoing relationship with a writer who understands your voice, your vision, your content plan and strategy, and isn’t just a writer for hire.

There’s also a lot of room for writers to learn how to create the structure and the strategies to command higher prices and make a real living as a writer. So moving into 2021, we really want to speak to those people more. I really want to be able to teach more around how to move forward if you’re a writer who wants to establish yourself.

Q: What’s the biggest goal for North Star next year?

Marie: Definitely continuing the 1-on-1 support we offer for our clients. But since we don’t want to scale that infinitely, the way to scale our impact next year is to release a training program for freelance writers, so that they can learn the brand voice process and implement it.

If we continue to run into capacity issues, it would be nice to refer them to people who’ve learned our process. So we’ll be building out that kind of referral network, lifting up writers as much as possible, starting with our team and moving on to the freelancing community.

Jessi: And it’s not just for the freelancers of the world. There are also a lot of content creators who are where Marie and I were maybe six years ago. We had a business, we knew we wanted a successful writing business, we knew we were on the right path, but we were just barely treading water. We needed to see other writing-focused business owners in our space, but when we entered peer relationships like masterminds and coaching communities, there were almost never other content writers there. There are still hardly ever other writers there. There’s this huge gap in business resources for this specific industry that we want to help fill.

Q: Outside of North Star, the two of you have been working on a big project for the last few years, and you hit a major milestone this fall! What’s the latest on your novel?

Marie: We finished the ninth round of revisions on our novel of six years [working title: UNRELENTING]. We’ve had wonderful beta readers and two offers of publication from small, independent publishers. And in October 2020, it won a finalist placement in the Book Pipeline Unpublished contest. The prize for finalists is that their team helps you get representation with an agent and/or publication with an independent publisher. It’s been really great to have them in our corner.

We also have our own projects, and I got into my first application-only creative writing workshop. That’ll happen in March, so I’m excited for that!

Jessi: And to just clarify, that workshop that Marie got invited to is for fiction writing, and the novel we’re talking about is a fiction novel which is completely different from all the work we do for North Star, but is just as valuable as to helping us hone our creative process and all of those things.

I remember the project Marie is currently working on that she got into the workshop with…when she was first starting it, I remember she created a Brand Voice Guide for the voice of the novel. So the stuff we do transcends everything that we do.


Learn more about the rest of the North Star team with our Get to Know North Star series. Up next: COO Brigid Ward!

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