Many business coaches would tell you the best way to think about starting a business, and one of the key documents you will need, is to write a business plan. Heather Whaling, founder and president of Geben Communication had a different idea in mind.
“I’ve always tried to treat Geben like a ‘client,’ she says. “I never took a business class in college and I had no idea how things would shake out, so writing a five-year business plan seemed like a waste of time.”
Instead, she wrote a PR plan and credits this unique approach to her business as the reason she was able to start and grow a business from scratch.
Whaling grew up in Columbus, and had been working in Orlando when she was struck with a desire to return to Central Ohio.
“But it was the height of the recession and I didn’t know a lot of people in town,” she says. “I had two options: Find a new job here, or create my own.”
She created Geben Communication with a focus on “helping companies be smarter and more effective with their traditional and digital PR.”
She landed her first big client on Christmas Eve, and things haven’t slowed down for her since.
“When I started, I didn’t have a kid or a mortgage, so it was just me and my laptop in my living room,” says Whaling. “I didn’t need funding to get things launched and the company was revenue-generating from the very beginning, so -thankfully- I could pay all my bills. I’ve never taken a loan or funding. I’m the sole owner and it’s entirely self-funded.”
Geben Communication eventually outgrew Whaling’s living room, and moved into the old Yosick’s Chocolate Shop in German Village in 2012.
“I liked the open and collaborative office environment, and it didn’t hurt that my “commute” to work was pretty much crossing the street,” says Whaling about why she liked that space. “That became especially important when I had my son in 2013. I loved that I could stop home over lunch or in between meetings to spend some quality time with him.”
The company has rapidly added employees, finishing with nine in 2014. Now they are up to 20 and looking for more.
“We just outgrew the original office,” she says. “There were literally desks everywhere, and there weren’t enough conference rooms/meeting spaces to accommodate all of us!”
It was time to look for a new office, and the search was focused on downtown and for a space that they could grow into.
“When I started looking for downtown space, Michael Loges, a business development specialist in the economic development department, was helpful,” says Whaling. “Kacey Brankamp at Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District was amazing, too. She had a detailed understanding of the downtown real estate market, made a ton of introductions on our behalf and helped us identify spaces to check out (some of which weren’t even on the market yet!).”
They ended up leasing a 2500 square-foot space above The Walrus, a new bar that was named Columbus Underground’s Best New Bar of 2015 in their annual reader poll.
“The previous tenants had a lot of walls and cubicles, as well as dropped ceilings, drywall covering beautiful brick walls, and mismatched lighting. We stripped out a lot of that stuff, added a couple of walls and a kitchen, and painted. A couple of highlights of the space that I love:
- – Drink station. Instead of just a water cooler, we created a drink station with local coffee, a variety of teas and a wine refrigerator. We normally have OneLine, Mission or Brioso coffee in stock … and there’s always plenty of red wine.
- – Lounge. We are a highly collaborative team, and we also need to foster creativity to deliver big ideas to clients. Creativity and collaboration don’t necessarily happen when people feel chained to their desks. So, we created a lounge area, with a couch, bench, beanbag chair and a couple other seating options. This has become one of the most frequently used spaces in the office. I love walking back there in the afternoon and seeing groups working together, brainstorming or just spending a little time recharging their brains.
- – Digital and analog conference rooms. We do a lot of high-tech work, but we’re also very skilled at traditional PR best practices. Our conference rooms are themed “digital” and “analog” to represent our ability to live in both worlds. The analog room has a beautiful, handcrafted wood table made by Jesse Braswell (Braswell & Scotch). It also has photos of Seattle, Chicago and NYC — where we currently have team members stationed. The digital room has a more modern looking table, social media memorabilia (e.g., a hashtag, RSS symbol and “Keel Calm and Tweet On” sign), and of course a digital clock.
“We’re walking distance from a lot of our favorite coffee shops and restaurants, so that’s a big plus too. There’s a lot growth happening right now on Main Street. We love being part of this section of downtown and are excited to grow with it.”
Hiring is one of the biggest challenges Whaling faces with her business.
“Knowing when to hire and hiring fast enough,” she says specifically. “Even though we’re very choosy about the clients that we decide to work with, it seems like we’re always in hiring mode.”
To help with the process, Whaling has developed a “talent pipeline process” where potential candidates are pre-identified and pre-interviewed.
“That way, when we are ready to hire, we have a pretty good idea of who the person will be,” she says. “As we continue to grow, I’m really focused on protecting the essence of Geben. Our culture is very different from most agencies, which I think is why we’ve been able to attract top talent, so wherever we moved, I needed it to still feel like us.”
Whaling feels that as a business owner and a mother, she has an obligation to talk about the challenges of balancing the two.
“When I was pregnant, I got tons of questions about when I’d slow down or how I’d ever balance motherhood with entrepreneurship,” she says. “My best accomplishment is the fact that I’m a really good mom and I’m growing my business. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It’s and. I love that I’m showing my son that people can, in fact, achieve ambitious careers goals and be good parents. Of course, it takes a village, but it’s absolutely doable.”
She feels talking about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship is an important part of being a business owner.
“When women and girls see other women successfully starting and growing businesses, they’ll start more businesses, too — and that’s a critical component to more women achieving economic self-sufficiency, which is good for families, the community and the economy as a whole.”
And she doesn’t only talk about it. Geben, and Whaling herself, are involved in several area organizations that focus on that kind of work: The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, Girls on the Run, 1Girl, Bottoms Up, and CHOICES. The team does quarterly service projects together to serve an area non-profit, such as baking treats for families at Ronald McDonald House, handing out fresh produce with YMCA and Mid-Ohio Foodbank, and volunteering at LifeCare Alliance.
“”Do well by doing good” is one of our House Rules,” shares Whaling. “And, the word Geben actually means “to give” in German. So, we regularly invest — whether that’s through dollars, time or resources — in local nonprofits/social service organizations.”
When it comes to furnishing in their office, Geben has a few custom designed pieces by Joseph Cauvel of Cauv Design.
“He made my desk and our reception desk out of reclaimed wood, plus built a really nice two-person standing desk that matches the rest of our furniture,” she says.
Jesse Braswell built a reclaimed-wood table for the analog conference rooms. Lights, side tables, and chairs came from Objects for the Home.
Whaling has enjoyed being a part of the Columbus business community.
“There’s an impressive number of business owners under 40 years old who are going all-in on their idea — whether it’s a brewery, a tech startup, or retailer,” she says. “I’m thankful that we’re already working with a number of these companies that are truly on their way to becoming part of the fabric of Columbus, and I’m excited to see how we all can grow together.”
She credits Keith Speers for guiding her on tough business questions.
“Keith has helped me figure out how to blend my personal and professional life, more than double my revenues, protect Geben’s culture as we’ve grown, create processes to ensure we grow smartly, and navigate new challenges and opportunities along the way,” she says. “When I’m unsure of what to do, he asks the right questions to guide me to the answer. He also knows when I need a nudge to think bigger.”
“This is an amazing place to own a business. Columbus is a very connected community, filled with people who are incredibly willing to make introductions, provide valuable insights and seek out opportunities for collaboration.”
Photos by Walker Evans.
To learn more about Geben Communication, visit Geben Communication.com.
Do you know of, have, or work in, a creative workspace or cool office space and would like to be featured in this series? If so, please contact Anne Evans.