Change or die.

That was the stark choice Christy Falkenberg found herself facing in 2020. Tenacity, hard work and a little bit of luck had let her company, Stone City Digital, weather the initial onslaught of COVID-19. But she knew that without something – she wasn’t quite sure what – Stone City Digital likely wouldn’t survive 2020.

That something turned out to be Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s (QPI) WE-CAN (Women Entrepreneurs Can) Project. Thanks to WE-CAN, which connected her with mentor Judith Pineault and QPI’s Growth Accelerator program, it looks as if in the next few years Falkenberg and Stone City are going to be doing a lot better than just surviving.

Falkenberg founded Stone City Digital, a digital marketing company, about four years ago. After a long spell in banking in Kingston, she saw it as a chance to, “do something different every day.” Her particular specialty is what she calls “quantified brand visibility marketing.”

“It’s about how they’re found, and why they’re found,” she says. “Oftentimes, we encounter companies that come to us and they say ‘Our marketing isn’t working, or we’ve tried Facebook and the social media but it still doesn’t work. So, we dig in with them and we help them understand why. Often it comes right back to their brand and what people think about them or how they’re communicating.”

Going into 2020, Stone City Digital was, in Falkenberg’s own words, a “tiny” company, just her and a part-time assistant, with a couple of sub-contractors and revenues of under $100,000 a year. The bulk of her clients were clustered in the janitorial services business, and largely in the United States.

When everything began shutting down in March, “it took those businesses about 48 hours to call me in a panic,” she says. The message: stop working because we don’t know if we can pay you.

“My answer was, Okay I get it. I don’t care about getting paid right now. If I take this time and take care of your business, then I might survive too.” She kept busy getting their messaging clear and helping them to deal with their clients. “Then lo and behold, it became apparent that cleaning is essential in a pandemic and they all started to reopen.” And in a lockdown, digital marketing was more important than ever. “Ultimately,” she says, “I had a business left.” But she also knew it had been a squeaker.

She started, she says, to look for help – and answers. Someone she knew in the local business community told her about WE-CAN and told her she really should be in the mentorship program. “It was weekly, and it kind of made sense.” She began working with Judith Pineault, a successful local female entrepreneur in October 2020.

Falkenberg admits she was skeptical. “I kept waiting for it to not be useful,” she says. “But every time I was with Judith, it was. Judith has been there. She spoke peace to where I was at, with wisdom. And a dose of reality. She helped me change my mindset.” Working together, they began focusing on who her ideal customer would look like, and whether she should have more than one stream of them to depend on.

It was also Judith who suggested that she also enroll in QPI’s Growth Accelerator program. “By its criteria I didn’t qualify, but Judith must have sent me about ten emails.” With Pineault basically standing over her, she wrote a creative appeal explaining why she should be admitted. It worked and she joined the second cohort of the accelerator in late October 2020.

“For the record, it isn’t just go once every couple of weeks. You have to push, and you have to change.” They met with the course directors every other week via Zoom, and she says, “Sometimes the homework would take 20-30 hours in between [classes], and it wasn’t simple little things.”

In addition to their biweekly Zoom class, participants also met privately with Ariella Lukach and Laura O’Blenis, from Stiletto, the company contracted by QPI to run the program. “I have a background in finance, but I have to say that Ariella knew how to do forecasting better than I did. It was awesome. Laura is an amazing woman, also. I’m a marketing professional, and you would think I would not appreciate the session they did on marketing, but it was amazing.”

Even before she finished the program, Falkenberg was benefiting from it. “We were building a growth plan,” literally a subset of their bigger business plan that outlines how they plan on expanding in the next few years, containing various forecasts, “and even as we were building it, I was implementing as much of it as I could.” As a result, she says: “We have more than tripled our business. We’re operating in four business sectors now and we’re looking at a fifth. That was all in December, January and February.”

“So it worked. And it’s working. But I have to say I don’t think I would have done as well in the accelerator without a mentor, and I certainly wouldn’t have grown without the plan to do so.”

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