Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Empowering Small Businesses: An Interview with Jesse Samberg, Founder of Third Act

In the dynamic landscape of small business growth, every journey is unique, and today, we delve into the inspiring story of Jesse Samberg, the visionary founder of Third Act. From his robust background in leading business development for global agencies to charting a new course with Third Act, Jesse brings a wealth of insights that resonate with entrepreneurs seeking innovative strategies for success. Join us as we explore key facets of his experiences, from navigating transitions to crafting effective sales and marketing strategies for small businesses.

Jesse Samberg
Jesse Samberg

Jesse cuts through the noise, empowering small business owners to take control of their business’s future. As Third Act’s founder, Jesse leads all client engagements and oversees teams of subject matter experts, setting the overall strategic vision in line with each client’s unique goals. As a Business Development leader directly responsible for capturing nearly $100mm in new revenue for global marketing and creative agencies like Publicis or Invisible North, Jesse developed and managed new go-to-market strategies and service offerings, while driving sales and growth planning from conception to execution. 

Working with Owners, Founders, C-Suite executives, and Marketing leaders across diverse categories to solve their business challenges, Jesse’s strategic approach and keen understanding of market dynamics have been instrumental in his ability to identify and capitalize on growth opportunities. 

Nowadays, Jesse gets most excited by connecting the dots for small business owners across categories and consumer contexts. A lifelong history major and graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, Jesse spends his free time mentoring current or aspiring business owners through SCORE or building a never-quite-finished walking trail in upstate New York.

Interviewee Name: Jesse Samberg

Company: ThirdAct

The Interview

To start, could you share a bit about your background and the path that led you to establish Third Act?

Jesse Samberg: I’ve always been a curious person, and I’ve dipped my toes into a few different professional paths to satisfy that itch over the past two decades. I’m the son of two attorneys, so becoming an attorney felt predestined at times, but after spending time after college working as a paralegal, I found the focus on a singular case left me wanting more variety.

After a research grant focused on sources of terrorist fundraising and passing round one of the State Department’s Foreign Service Officer Test, I ended up joining an advertising agency as an Account person! Assigned to work on Swiffer, Sheraton Hotels, and a nasal spray brand, I got drafted onto a pitch team a few months in and knew Business Development was my sweet spot in the agency world. It was formative to be on the frontlines of fast-paced Business Development efforts, leading teams to develop winning solutions to client’s business challenges across almost every category of business. Even the losses were sometimes great experiences; they compounded my learning. I love being able to connect the dots between categories and consumer contexts for clients.

But with the world in flux in 2020, I was more and more interested in exploring some different paths for myself that weren’t a part of agency growth plans. It took me a couple of years, another stint at an agency, opening an Airbnb business, starting to mentor through SCORE, and multiple iterations on Third Act to get to what it looks like today.

Transitioning from leading business development at larger agencies to founding Third Act is a significant shift. Could you walk us through the key considerations, challenges, or lessons you’ve encountered during this transition, and how this experience influences your approach to working with small business owners?

Jesse Samberg: In trying to bring Third Act to life, I knew I wanted a more direct impact on clients with my daily work. I considered a few routes, including jumping straight into buying an existing pet services business – an overinvestment of time and energy, if still a great learning experience – though ultimately decided to take a different, more consultative approach to start. Everything I learned at both the large, and smaller, agencies I’ve worked at has been a foundation to build on.

My research abilities are sharper, I’m better at uncovering opportunities for growth or value creation, and definitely at persuading clients to act on my strategic recommendations. My experience within agencies also taught me that it’s rare to be able to do it all by yourself, let alone be a true expert at everything. Leveraging my network of trusted resources I’ve been able to build throughout my career has been a helpful way to be more valuable to my clients.

This has held true for my paying clients or the countless small business owners I’ve mentored through my volunteer work with SCORE this past year. Dialing in how to articulate to small business owners that they don’t have to do it all alone, that they can find the outside perspective and expertise they need, has been a fun challenge. Knowledge and experience compounds over time. I’ve been lucky enough to work across so many categories and consumer groups, access leading-edge tools, or frankly just see beyond the limited view that many small business owners have because of the nature of my past roles.

I love being able to expand that view for small businesses, and help them towards their business goals with solid strategic guidance and practical execution.

Small businesses often face resource constraints. Can you share examples of how strategic partnerships have helped these businesses grow or scale effectively, and what advice would you offer to entrepreneurs looking to establish such partnerships?

Jesse Samberg: Limited size or budgets, talent retention challenges, key skill gaps, these are all common problems for small businesses. Depending on where a business is in its lifecycle, strategic partnerships can open up new sales, distribution, marketing, or supplier channels to reach more customers, without distracting a business owner and their team from their core business goals or breaking the budget. For example, for an eComm fashion client, I helped her evaluate a brick-and-mortar retail partnership opportunity.

Strategically, a single retail footprint would have been a low ROI and awareness-generating move. Instead, we created an affiliate partner program with campus-based reps who were already her top customers, turning them into brand advocates. For my own business and for my clients, I partner with SEO specialists who can create a more holistic, discoverable digital presence and we share in a larger pool of client opportunities and revenue.

A few key pieces of advice for any small business owner considering a partnership:

– Seek out a complementary partner, not a competitor

– Be clear about the value your company provides and what you expect from your partner

– Create a win-win, mutually beneficial partnerships are always the strongest

Sales and marketing are fundamental for small business growth. Can you share key insights or approaches that you’ve found to be highly effective in helping small business owners develop their sales and marketing strategies, especially when they are working with limited budgets and resources?

Jesse Samberg: I think the most critical piece of the puzzle is to really clarify your target audience. If you’re mis-calibrating around who actually needs or wants your product or service, you’re inevitably going to waste precious resources and limited time.

So, carving out a niche in the market can be a more effective strategy than trying to be all things to all customers. Spending time with your desired audience or the key stakeholders who are between you and your end customer is a great way to gain insights, learn about common pain points, and what moves the needle from an emotional or functional benefit (e.g. price or features).

A more informed strategic foundation about your customers – and what their expectations are from you – makes for more relevant and resonant sales outreach or effective and cost-efficient marketing campaigns.

In your experience working with small business owners, how crucial is the concept of business valuation and exit planning for their long-term success, and what strategies have you found particularly effective?

Jesse Samberg: It’s so essential, though it can be one of the hardest subjects to broach. Owners want to be successful and build a valuable company, but some have a hard time separating themselves from that company.

There is so much wrapped up in being a small business owner; their livelihood and that of their employees, their tangible community impact, legacy, a sense of purpose or self-worth, even combating loneliness for older owners! The statistics around the lack of exit planning are staggering, for older owners in particular, with Baby Boomer owners accounting for nearly 40% of the 33 million American small businesses alone. Less than ⅓ of all small business owners have a retirement plan.

Sadly, in my own conversations this year, business owners across retail, apparel, entertainment, and food service are simply shutting down or essentially having a fire sale because they didn’t have a plan for what the business would look like without them. If the value of a company is strongly tied up in the owner themselves, you can be sure this is a crucial factor buyers are interrogating and one that might limit a valuation.

For example, a small business owner may ultimately command a greater valuation by taking advantage of a strong Employee Stock Option Plan that creates equity for key management and employees. In addition to strengthening talent retention by aligning incentives, this can be highly attractive to buyers – even increasing the pool of buyers – as it goes a long way to ensuring a smoother transition and limiting disruption to company operations.

As the founder of Third Act, what is your leadership philosophy, and how do you apply it to inspire and guide your team?

Jesse Samberg: I believe that the best outcomes come when we push through uncomfortability, and that we don’t have to do it all alone. I encourage curiosity and welcome new and different perspectives because they have always contributed to my greatest successes. Working for so many years at agencies was proof that open collaboration can lead to amazing results.

You’re an active mentor through SCORE. Can you share what mentoring means to you and how it complements your professional life?

Jesse Samberg: It’s a great way to share some of the knowledge I’ve been able to gain and invest in the success of others, which is important to me. Helping owners at all stages of their business journey is a different type of experience than what I’m used to in my career.

Business development can feel like a zero-sum game at times, but mentoring owners through their challenges or helping them develop strategies and processes to hit their goals has been really positive for me too. It also helps compound what I’m doing with Third Act because each owner and every conversation reveals interesting and relevant insights to take forward.

Could you discuss some of the most rewarding or impactful experiences you’ve had while working with small business owners through Third Act?

Jesse Samberg: One of my favorites so far has been to help The New 60 Comic promote a book and grow their following. My clients are actually some ex-colleagues from my first ever ad agency and I love the symmetry of it all. They’re so open to trying new things even when it’s uncomfortable for them, which always keeps it interesting. Plus, they’ve created a funny and relatable IP and the possibilities for how to bring it to more audiences feel wide-open. And, it makes a great holiday gift!

Along your journey, you’ve likely encountered challenges. Can you share a challenging moment or situation that taught you valuable lessons?

Jesse Samberg: I mentioned a leadership philosophy around pushing through uncomfortable situations. Part of that means being resilient in the face of challenges or adversity, and part of that is looking at solving a challenge from lots of different angles. Even if it means accepting that you are not the right person to solve it.

Earlier this year, my business partner and I had tried to purchase a business and when that didn’t pan out as planned, we made the mistake of pivoting to try and be a consultative partner. We miscalculated what the owner really valued (her ability to spend time with clients), even if we knew how to make the business work more efficiently and profitably, and ended up spending too much time on an opportunity that was only declining in scope. While a setback and for sure a blow to the ego, it was clarifying for us. We pivoted our offering, dialed in our services and our ideal client criteria, and have since been on a clearer strategic path.

Balancing the responsibilities of running Third Act and your personal interests, can be challenging. How do you manage this balance, and how do your personal interests influence your professional life?

Jesse Samberg: If I’m honest, it’s been hard. I know that if I take my foot off the gas, things slow down. But I love the energy I get from working with clients on their business challenges.

Luckily for me, I’ve been able to align some of my personal interests with my professional pursuits and enjoy finding ways to “build value” in everything I do, even leisure time. I get a lot out of my SCORE volunteer work, and it helps me keep the pulse on so many different aspects of small businesses that are valuable in my work. I also love spending time outside, whether hiking with my wife and dog, or building a never-quite-finished walking trail at my property in Upstate NY. Since that trail will one day be accessible to Airbnb guests, I tell myself I’m increasing the amenities and enhancing the property value!

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