An Interview with Ilise Benun

Speaker, Author & Founder of Marketing Mentor
 Ilise Benun

Ilise Benun helps creative professionals get better projects with bigger budgets. She is the founder of and a Program Partner for HOW Design Live, the largest design conference in the U.S. , a national speaker and the author of 7 business books, including ’The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money.’

In this Startup Savant interview, Ilise tells us about her experience from being fired from her previous job to developing a conviction to never work for anyone else again. She also shares how she started Marketing Mentor, how she gets clients, and how she uses newsletters to succeed in marketing up to this day. Learn more from Ilise’s insights in the following paragraphs. Don’t forget to connect with her on Twitter!


What motivated you to start Marketing Mentor? How did the idea come about?

I was fired from my second job out of college and I was so angry. I decided I was never working for anyone again. I started with the idea of helping all the creative people I knew who are kind of disorganized to be a little bit more organized.

Little by little, I noticed that at the bottom of everybody’s piles, there was something that had to do with marketing and self-promotion that they weren’t doing. It became obvious to me that the obstacle was the clutter but it wasn’t obstacle to marketing and self-promotion. It wasn’t the problem itself.

So, I just evolved the business over the years. I started in 1988 into a consulting practice to help people promote their creative services.


What was your mission at the beginning of starting your business?

My mission was to help people do the simple, basic marketing things that for some reasons they weren’t doing like responding to a message when someone was literally asking them for information about their work, or following through on reaching out to prospects they were most interested in, and delivering actual samples of their work to someone who had expressed interest. They are the most basic things that people were essentially not doing.


What do you attribute your success to? Is there a trait you have or a person who helped you along the way?

I would say “self-discipline.” It’s definitely not talent. Although, I’ve learned a lot in almost 30 years I’ve been doing this. But I do have an internal self-discipline that I have also honed over the years that makes me not waste my time on Facebook and get up and go to the refrigerator every 10 minutes. I like to be focused and I like the feeling of accomplishment. I think self-discipline is what most people are actually lacking.


When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.

I don’t see that I have a choice. Hitting the snooze button is really not an option if I want to live the life I built for myself. Truthfully when times get tough, I would say it’s actually very invigorating. That’s when you get to see what you are made of and learn about yourself. It’s not such a bad thing actually when times get tough. We need those tough times sometimes.


Employees are one of the most important players to succeed in business. What do you look for in an employee?

I want to work with people who bring their brains to our work, not just their hands. I think there are lots of lazy people out there doing the minimum to get by. They are really not for me. I am looking for someone who’d go above and beyond, not just in the first week or month of working together but on an ongoing basis.


What is unique about your business? Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest?

I would say, it’s my specialty which I narrowed over the years to focus on creative professionals, specifically designers of all types, copywriters, photographers and consultants. Those are the people I work best with. Those are the market I know and when people hire me, they usually tell me it’s because there were other marketing consultants they were talking to but no one knew their business the way I do.

And that definitely sets me apart. It also means I am more competent and I can charge more.


Have you ever gotten a disappointed client or customer? If so, how did you handle the situation?

Of course! A lot of people want a magic formula for marketing their business or getting better clients. They don’t realize how much effort and persistence it takes to build a thriving business.

I have no magic to offer. I tried to make that clear in all of my marketing. Over the years I would say, I probably have gotten better at qualifying people and assessing whether we are a good fit and letting those who aren’t a good fit know that upfront. I no longer take clients I don’t feel confident I can help and therefore, no longer had disappointed clients.


Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for Marketing Mentor? If so, how did you stumble upon it?

Yes. I would say, content marketing, which is not what we called it when I first started doing it. My very first marketing tool after doing some initial networking was a newsletter. It was a printed newsletter that I sent out bulk mail to a list of creative people that I knew in Hoboken, who are part of an association called Hoboken Creative Alliance.

And that evolved into an e-mail newsletter, which I’ve been sending out now for about 20 years. it’s called, “Quick Tips from Marketing Mentor.” That is my number one best marketing tool. People have been on it for years and years. They stay on it and I gave them really good, high-quality content.

Many people never respond, which is fine, but every month I get several people who’ve come and say, “Alright, I am ready to hire you. I’ve been reading you for a long time. I felt like I know you. What’s it going to cost?” So essentially, the marketing tool – the e-mail newsletter, qualifies people. It primes them and they are ready to work with me when they raise their hand. So, I think everybody should have a newsletter like that.


Are there any resource or resources that helped you on your journey to becoming a business owner?

Yes. I think there are tons of resources, more and more. I think that’s the part of a problem. You can’t decide which one to use or which one is the best. I think though, you have to have someone to bounce ideas off. You need a sounding board and it is usually best to pay someone for that service.

It’s because that way, you take it more seriously. That is essentially the work that I do and I am that sounding board for a lot of people who are out there on their own, doing their own business and have no one to talk to. You have to find someone who understands your business and ideally, understands the market which you want to work.


What are the three best pieces of advice that you would give to anyone starting a business in New Jersey? What do they need to know from the very beginning?

  1. Don’t focus on yourself, what you want and don’t want. Focus instead on what the world needs that you can provide, and then strive to serve that market and provide that service the best you possibly can.
  2. Make sure your expectations of success are realistic. Most people gave up way too soon and are very easily discouraged. And I would say that sets me apart also, because I am not easily discouraged.
  3. Get out of your own way. I do think we are often our own worst enemy. So don’t make assumptions about what you can and can’t do, or what will or what work. You have to try it and see if it works and then, continue accordingly.


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About Ryan James

Half hardworking hermit, half avid adventurer, Ryan founded Startup Savant to simplify entrepreneurship and pay it forward by donating a portion of all revenue to support children's education via