SmartCEO Magazine Honors Women Leaders: Q&A With IOP Co-Founder Michelle Marks

IOP principal and co-founder Michelle Marks was awarded SmartCEO Magazine’s 2017 Brava Award for outstanding female business leaders pushing boundaries and excelling in their fields. SmartCEO interviewed Michelle on what makes her, and IOP, tick!

What was the founding vision for IOP? What is the “why” behind what you do?

My partners and I originally worked together in the first dot-com boom at a successful, growing company that ended their only profitable line of business. We left and founded our own company. We knew we could do the work — better. Seventeen years later, we’re still doing great work with great people, and having fun while doing it. That’s our vision, and it keeps us coming in every day.

How has IOP outperformed competitors?

We founded IOP at a compelling moment in modern history. We started in September 2000, moments before the dot-com bust and, of course, 9/11 a year later. Our first year was truly trial by fire, but it paid off. At the end of that year, our former employer was out of business. We felt incredibly validated in our business model. And we’ve been growing ever since.

Describe any personal or professional challenges you experienced while growing your company. How did these challenge(s) shape you as a leader?

None of us had ever run a business before. We did all the work ourselves starting out. After producing some amazing work with amazing clients in our first year, winning industry awards and garnering recognition, we assumed the phone would be ringing off the hook. But it didn’t play out that way.

It was a huge challenge to learn how to manufacture steady success in the pre-startup era. We had no connections to tap into or precedents to follow, but the process kept us humble and created our culture — one of always learning. To this day, we actively invest in education and professional development for us and our staff. This includes paying for professional association memberships for everyone in the studio, classes, lectures, field trips. Today’s markets move fast, and continually learning fosters growth we can put to good use for our clients.

How do you demonstrate leadership within and beyond the workplace?

Leadership is about making decisions. We have to make hard calls, but by trusting my instincts, tempered by years of experience, we do well.

I’m highly focused on developing and mentoring the people who work at IOP. Again, encouraging—and paying for—professional development programs are key to both their individual successes and the success of the company. I’m also a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization, which has been instrumental to my own development and the development of many women launching their own businesses. It’s rewarding to help solve problems for my peers.

I also have two teenagers. “Mentoring” them is my other full-time job!

What philanthropic endeavors do you and IOP support?

Every year, we make donations in our clients’ names. We also try to give back with the greatest impact possible, putting our skills to actual use through a pro bono program we launched in 2015 called “BrandNewBrand!” I love this program; we leverage our brand strategy and design expertise to rebrand the selected nonprofit, equipping them with tools to better communicate their mission and reach more people.

For our first cycle, the winner was EcoSpaces Education, a Newark-based program focused on a holistic educational approach to developing a healthy relationship between children, families and food. We collaborated with them for nearly a year. Since our work, they have been recognized by Michelle Obama’s foundation and have expanded their services beyond the initial school. And through the website we built, they have grown into a trusted online learning center for educators and food service professionals.

We’re currently tackling our next cycle, working with Connecticut-based Kids In Crisis, who offer 24/7 support for kids and families in the moment of a crisis, ranging from neglect and abuse to mental health and more. Everyone in the studio is involved. It is a much loved program and now part of our DNA. Stay tuned for the launch of the new Kids In Crisis brand and website!