Maria Ross had always been a self-proclaimed “corporate gal.” As a marketing director for a Silicon Valley software company, she’d also had a history working with Fortune 1000 companies at the executive level, until a mass layoff forced her to re-evaluate her career path.
Now an author, speaker and founder of Red Slice LLC, Ross has taken what was just a blog in 2008 and turned it into a thriving consulting and brand strategy business in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Tired of technology marketing, which at the time mandated that we treat our prospects like automatons with lots of jargon and little fun and humor, I knew there was a better way to create marketing that mattered,” she recalled. “I yearned to build brands that delighted people as human beings and fulfilled their real needs. Marketing didn’t have to be about bending the truth or making people buy things they don’t need. When used with good intent, marketing can communicate value, rally tribes and encourage people to act – ‘for good rather than evil,’ I like to say!
“While I had always toyed with the idea of going out on my own, I feared the instability and risk involved. But I was in a position to give it a try so the day we got notice, there were no more excuses: I flipped the switch on my makeshift website and sent an email to all my contacts that Red Slice was open for business. And it’s been a crazy ride ever since, giving me the opportunity to help entrepreneurs and marketers in different and fascinating industries. The industries may be different but the fundamentals to create a brand strategy and [a] compelling story are the same no matter what you sell, create or produce,” she continued.
Startup costs and retail space were not a necessity for her, she explained.
“I just needed my laptop and my connections. I relied on favors and trades in the beginning to get my website up, create design, etc., and called on my contacts to whom I had given business all those years in corporate America … I work from home, only subcontract specialists when I need to for a given client, and manage my expenses by setting aside money for marketing and professional services (my largest expenses) and never spending what I do not have. Consulting is a feast or famine business so you always need to have a budget in mind for what you spend … I do all my bookkeeping on QuickBooks online and with the help of a savvy bookkeeper,” she said.
Ross was quick to note that her time working with Business Objects, Discovery Networks and Monster.com gave her the valuable hands-on experience she needed to start her own firm.
“I advanced my career by moving up and getting more exposure to the entire marketing function with both client and consulting roles at an advertising agency, dot.com startup and both small and large global technology companies. That progression was such a great benefit to me, as it taught me all aspects of marketing: branding, press, advertising, lead generation, messaging, communications and this holistic view serves my clients well,” she said. “In addition, I was sharpening my leadership, business savvy and communications skills, which serve you well on any path you choose.”
When asked the reason behind the unique name of her business, Ross replied, “That’s a funny story! With my red hair and multiple passions – wine, writing, acting, marketing – I started a personal blog and dubbed it Red Slice as a nod to my hair as well as my ‘slices’ of interest. When I started the brand consultancy, I did not want to simply name it ‘Ross Consulting.’ Boring! If I’m going to help businesses stand out and be creative, I’d have to walk my talk.
“So I adopted the name of my blog for my business and have parlayed its brand meaning into imagery that represents juicy fruit, irresistible images and a red apple standing out in a sea of green ones. It always results in people taking a pause and remembering my business, which is what I wanted. This ability to be irresistible, to stand out and shine, is a core benefit for my clients as well,” she continued.
Creative imagery is also what led Ross to create her unique brand of workshops – Brand Bootcamp, Brand Booster Session, and SLICE Retreat – to aid entrepreneurs in their efforts to streamline their marketing needs.
“Entrepreneurs will learn that your business evolves as you try new things … So I created the SLICE Sessions to package up the strategy work in an efficient, valuable way that was almost a ‘Brand Plan in a Box’ and then providing clients with a step-by-step action plan for the execution, complete with referrals. This brings me so much more joy and it enables my clients to tackle the execution pieces on their own time and budget,” she explained.
“I quickly realized I could only do so many of those a month, so to scale my expertise, I created the digital Brand Bootcamp self-study course, which guides people on how to craft their own brand strategy, and also includes bonus content on blogging tips, social media strategy and how to pitch the press. This way they get ‘me’ and my expertise but can work stress-free and at their own pace – and at a price point that may work better for their budget,” Ross continued, noting that she was still getting a large number of requests for a “quick pick your brain” session.
“Then, one day in 2012, I made an exception for someone I really admired to do a 90-minute brainstorm session with her. She brought the questions and I simply brought my experience and advice to bear – no deliverables or research required – and she loved it! She said it was tremendously helpful to her and that I should absolutely offer this but just frame it appropriately and – [voilà] – the Brand Booster session was born,” she added.
Ross has also taken to writing a few books, one to aid clients, and another to chronicle her personal journey back from a brain injury: “Branding Basics for Small Business” and “Rebooting My Brain,” respectively.
“’Branding Basics’ was a way to capture all my expertise and my strategic development process into a book, which anyone could use to do the work on their own if they were willing and able. I’m passionate about entrepreneurs starting off on the right foot and making smarter, more efficient marketing decisions that actually work: having a clear brand strategy in place helps you do this, as well as save valuable time, money and effort in building your business. It’s like a compass that can help you make smarter decisions, but not just for marketing: for operations, partnerships, messaging, hiring,” she said.
“’Rebooting My Brain’ was a complete departure from anything business-related. In 2008, just six months after starting Red Slice, I suffered a near-fatal ruptured brain aneurysm and was blessed to have an amazing recovery,” Ross added. “That journey back to health, my business and my life was something that I hoped could inspire others so I [wrote] the book to encourage anyone who has to bounce back after crisis. I also learned a lot about brain injury and felt my recovery was a responsibility to be a voice and get that information out to the public. The response and love from that book has been overwhelming and gratifying and gives my life purpose.”
When asked how, on top of everything else, she’s able to find time for motherhood – she’s currently on maternity leave – Ross replied, “I’m in very early stages so I’ll have to figure it out. What I do know is you need to plan ahead and get help. You can’t do it alone. And everyone needs to find what works for them … For me, working for myself and from home with no other employees enables me to scale up and down and be flexible.
“One thing I will say: Balance is a joke and a lie we’ve been sold,” she continued. “Nothing is balanced. It’s unattainable for everything in your life to have equal attention at the same time. You have to prioritize instead. Some things will need more of your attention at certain times than others. Be OK with the ebb and flow and plan ahead. Sometimes your family will need you more than work …You don’t have to say yes to every neighbor’s request, every volunteer opportunity, every client. We women need to get that through [our] heads!”