An entrepreneurial journey from the “Princess of Printing” to “Marketing Strategista”
Fran Biderman-Gross is the CEO of Advantages, an award-winning NYC-based agency that crafts strategic communications for companies. Her business roots are humble, however. She started out as an “accidental entrepreneur” who quickly embraced the challenges and proved her weight in gold.
Fran evolved into a strategic marketing guru from selling printed goods to stationery stores. And she weathered industry-wide, national, and personal upheavals by reinventing her business several times.
Fran’s story shares many of the twists and turns of a classic entrepreneurial evolution (E-Volution). But her challenges and many of the novel solutions she used to conquer them are unique.
Seizing opportunity: an upstart printing business in Manhattan
In 1992, Fran and her husband David started a small printing and stationery goods company. “Advantages” was born. It was David’s burning desire to be an entrepreneur, so he left his family’s textile business to strike out on his own.
In those early days, Fran was fascinated to watch him maneuver—seizing opportunities, establishing relationships, and “wheeling and dealing” like crazy. For her part, she threw herself into the mechanics of printing and supply. And together, they built a business with over a million dollars in revenue in a few short years.
But an existential challenge soon reared its head: the rise of the Big Box office supply stores like Staples.
“All of a sudden, businesses were like ‘Wait a minute. We don’t need to buy this stuff from the local corner store,” Fran explains. “We can go to a big-box retail store and get this cheaper—no one could touch their leverage. So, that was pivot one: ‘Oh my God, my livelihood is going to be over in a matter of months when everyone figures this out.’”
Fran’s dire prediction played out. Within a year, she watched the “rise and fall” of almost all local printing and stationery suppliers and distributors.
“Unless you were really doing big business, you were forced out,” she says.
Fran and her husband had to adapt to survive, and they did it by seizing another opportunity.
Every stationery store sold a range of custom items, from letterhead and multi-part forms to pens and keychains. Advantages began producing and selling these custom goods to stores while forming a collective among the manufacturers. Several companies agreed to give each other preferential treatment on deals while sharing ownership and distribution resources.
The pivot was successful, for a while—until personal and national tragedies struck.
Weathering existential challenges by reverse-engineering a marketing agency
Fran lost her husband David to illness in 2001, an immense personal tragedy quickly followed by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. When 9/11 shut down Manhattan’s financial district, Fran lost over half of the business overnight. And once manufacturers started selling to retail stores directly, the company was truly on the ropes. Fran was down but not out. She had to evolve again and find a new way forward.
“It took me a while to figure out what to do,” she explains. “I had to find pockets of the print industry or other opportunities that allowed me to create a brand-new business.”
In 2004, Fran bought a marketing agency to figure out exactly how an agency’s print demands interfaced with her printing business. She reasoned that whenever something is custom-printed, someone has to create the image—and it might as well be her. Fran worked backward from there, building out the new company’s services with print as the end-game.
She also considered that when an agency designs material, it has a purpose. “Why do clients need it in the first place?” she thought. This observation expanded her services into strategic communications. Advantages quickly morphed into a full-service agency that helps clients purposefully find their voice and deploy communications to achieve tangible objectives.
The rest, as they say, is history: Advantages has become a very successful agency. But to get there, Fran had to learn some difficult lessons and apply the right solutions.
Becoming a leader by design
Fran strives to create the type of work environment she wanted for herself when she was younger. She actively promotes mentorship, encourages learning, and pays for it as an investment in her people. This is something Fran wished she’d done a lot earlier, however. “Leadership development never stops,” she says. “And there is always room to improve.”
One of her leadership evolutions involved learning to communicate her vision effectively and then trusting the team to align around it. Fran’s exposure to peer groups—particularly the New York Board of EO and then-President Matt Weiss—helped her become a better leader. And hiring The Profit Recipe as an EOS Implementor® also taught her a few things.
“I learned with Cesar that I depended too much on other’s opinions,” she says. “When he told me that all the answers were within me, it empowered me to take ownership of my leadership. I started taking responsibility for the good and the bad. I don’t always make the right decision, but I have to make decisions on what I have. And I’ve learned that no decision is final—we can always improve and make it better.”
Building a team by design
Advantages made the Inc. 5000 list of “America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies” in 2015, and Inc. named the agency one of “The 50 Best Places to Work” the following year. But it took a lot of work to get there. In Advantages’ early days, it was just Fran and her husband working out of a garage. They didn’t know how to scale effectively or how much they needed people with the right expertise.
“I wish we had a forecast to understand that we needed more people,” Fran explains. “And I wish we had hired someone really knowledgeable part-time instead of making so many early printing mistakes.”
She eventually did hire an expert, but building a team by design remained a years-long, iterative process. For example, while following the mantra that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Fran discovered that “hiring for culture fit and training for skill” sometimes has limitations.
“A lot of times, we would get stuck liking people but not their performance,” she explains. “But EOS® helped us add accountability and make sure that not only were they the right people in the right seat, but they also did the right things. We learned to set our employees up for success with clear expectations.”
Fran maintains that creating an effective team is all about leveraging people for their skills and alignment with the company’s values. And some recent key hires—along with a new pivot that fulfills her purpose—is taking Advantages to the next level.
The challenges of building a business by design
In the printing business, Fran had to learn on the job—and she made a lot of mistakes. From how to roll the press to figuring out how to manage inventory, it was a “learn-from-the-ground-up” challenge. But eventually, she instituted processes that created efficiencies, reduced unnecessary pressure, and achieved profitability.
“Once we finally understood the printing business, we started combining printing orders to match the economics and cost,” she says. “We determined what to produce when.”
She accomplished this by implementing smart processes that accurately determined the expectations and timelines of each client. This, in turn, was plugged into project management practices that enabled the firm to meet objectives while producing material at lower costs.
In the strategic communications aspect, Fran also learned the value of delivering results, not just fulfilling orders. And she applied this philosophy to do business smarter.
“I learned how to sell our services well, especially because most of the time, clients didn’t even know what they wanted or needed,” she explains. “I became savvier about what was required and forced myself to learn and avoid tunnel vision. I figured out what was available and how to provide solutions for clients instead of simply giving them what they asked for.”
Fran eventually turned to the Entrepreneurial Operating System® (EOS) to improve processes, people, communications, metrics, and various other aspects of her agency. It’s not the only system she’s tried in her 30-year-plus E-Volution, but Fran describes it as an immensely “stabilizing influence.”
“After going through so many systems and consultants, what I liked most about EOS is that it is simple and scalable,” she says. “I was extracted from leading every meeting, and it enabled me to lead, not manage.”
EOS also helps Advantages execute its vision and avoid “shiny object syndrome.” As her EOS Implementer, The Profit Recipe spurs the company to look at structure first, create buy-in, and focus on priorities, instead of “every whim [Fran] has as the leader.”
“It just made it easier for me to be at my best, doing what I do best,” Fran says. “Which is not managing or micromanaging people.”
Why + opportunity = a new way forward
In the wake of COVID-19, Advantages is going through another pivot that hones the agency’s focus and expands its services. Crucially, the project aligns with Fran’s personal “Why.”
She met business guru Simon Sinek in 2005 and was among the first people to workshop a Why statement—a process made famous by Sinek’s 2009 bestseller, Start with Why. Originally, Fran’s statement was, “I guide others to get noticed.” It has since been refined: “I guide others so that their true potential can be revealed.”
Over the years, Fran expanded the services of Advantages to reflect this purpose. As she completed projects for clients, others within the same organization would ask whether she could do something similar for them. Helping a marketing department with their goals, for example, would spur the HR department to ask if Advantages could also create communications to attract talent.
Soon, Fran realized that a comprehensive approach—truly understanding an organization’s objectives and aligning communications around them—provided far better service. She started enabling other leaders to define their Why along with concrete business objectives—and then worked to achieve these goals by designing and implementing a strategy.
“Our entire company is truly dedicated to rallying around a leader’s Why,” she explains. “We also use the Three Ps [People, Process, and Product] that underpin their business and determine how they can attract customers and internally lead better.”
Diving into the E-Volution cycle again
Today, Advantages embarks on a new expansion of services after the upheaval spurred by COVID-19 lockdowns: providing clients the equivalent of hiring a Chief Marketing Officer.
To do it, she built out the team by “finding the baddest-ass CFO and CMO that you could find.” Adding these highly-qualified individuals to the toolbox means Advantages can offer mid-sized companies truly strategic services.
When most companies hire a marketing agency, they are still missing a dedicated strategist, which often takes the form of a Chief Marketing Officer. And many organizations—even those with up to $100 million in revenue—do not invest in a CMO. At most, they require a fractional CMO and tend to outgrow their marketing agencies once they realize the need for an in-house resource. With Advantages, however, companies can obtain an external CMO who provides services that grow with the organization.
“This (new offering) is very true to my own Why,” explains Fran. “It’s how I see the world, whether it’s in business, with my family, with my friends, or serving my community. I always go for ‘what are the true goals and how do we really get there?’”
Valuable lessons, learned the hard way
As Fran moves into her latest phase of E-Volution, she has some good advice for other entrepreneurs in various stages of their career.
“When I talk to people about my career, I often say, ‘I’m wearing pants today, so you don’t have to see all the bruises and scars on my knees from all the times I fell but kept getting back up,” she laughs. “I fell hard and often, and didn’t have the resources and network that some others had.”
“But I was small, and I was determined,” she continues. “I got a street-smart education and learned by failure, reading, and doing. And at a certain point, I learned by hiring experts who are smarter than me.”
Many entrepreneurs face similar struggles, though not all of them share Fran’s extraordinary success. And as the latest E-Volution of Advantages takes shape, we’re not betting against her.
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