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Talking with Creative Leaders: Connecting With Customers & Employees in 2023

An interview with Zaeem Sarwar, CMO of Ownr

Ownr is a one-stop shop. You can register, incorporate, create legal agreements, manage employees, and more and over 100,000 businesses trust them to help them bring their entrepreneurial dreams into reality.

The Garden got to work with Ownr to create a campaign that positioned Ownr as the go-to destination for Canadian entrepreneurs to both start AND grow their businesses. Through that process it was a pleasure getting to know Zaeem Sarwar, their Chief Marketing Officer, so we thought we'd pick his brain on where Ownr has found success in reaching their customers and what Sarwar is most excited for this year (hint: it's the same answer as all of our previous articles, which makes this a particularly noteworthy trend to hop on in 2023).

Tell us a little more about Ownr.

Ownr is an RBC X venture and essentially is a platform to help aspiring entrepreneurs get started. Usually, people go to the government and try to sort out everything themselves or they go like lawyers and accountants, but Ownr helps people do something that could take days and thousands of dollars in 15 minutes at a fraction of the cost. We allow people to get back to doing what they do best, which is making their dreams become reality.

In the world of marketing our main job is to really introduce Ownr to entrepreneurs starting out and help them make the decision to start their own business. We have a lot of content that caters to helping this group start their business out from the beginning.

Is there an emerging topic or emerging pattern that you've seen over the past year that has exciting potential in the realm of entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship itself has been going through a lot of changes over the past couple of years and something really cool that we do is we publish semi-annual data reports which are all public (the next one is coming out soon). We monitor the trends and publish articles about how inflation, for example, is affecting small business owners.

To better connect with customers we ran some grants and we actually ended up giving away around $250,000 in grants to small business owners over the past year. Based on our research, very few people interested in starting a business actually do, so we wanted to make it easier for them. We’ve actually undercut the government in terms of the cost of registering a business – it’s $60 with the government and only $50 with Ownr. On top of that, we give people $100 to start their businesses when they open an RBC business account.

From your POV, what are some of the biggest challenges senior marketers face today?

I think the biggest challenge is finding the right equilibrium when it comes to deciding the right moments to keep focusing on iterative changes that move the needle or making big bets.

Privacy changes (from the likes of Apple, Google, etc.) have also made it a more challenging environment for marketers, limiting the efficiency of campaigns. Meanwhile, the cost of digital advertising has gone up something like 30% in the past year and there is so much saturation. Standing out can be a real challenge and the key to doing so is telling your brand’s unique story.

For Ownr, a big part of our campaign that we worked on with The Garden centred around not promising the world to potential entrepreneurs as entrepreneurship is never going to be easy. That’s why we worked with The Garden to focus on the idea of “making small business less hard.”

What do you feel is a challenge for many organizations and why?

Understanding constraints as resources are more limited now than they were a couple of years ago. Everyone needs to ask the question, “How do we build it in a more lean way?”

I think many organizations also fall into the trap of wanting to make sure their product or service is perfect before launching. We had this happen with the Quebec launch where we kept delaying our launch as there was something new popping up all of the time to consider and tweak. In the end, we just said, “You know what? We're going to just launch this and we’ll see what we learn from our customers and we'll improve as we go.” And I think that was one of the best decisions we made because we were iterating with real-time user feedback, fixing bugs, etc. I think it would have taken a lot longer to launch if we hadn’t rolled Ownr out in Quebec when we did and it could have even got sidetracked completely.

How do you ensure collaboration and connection with your team and amongst your team?

Sometimes in brainstorms, certain people tend to dominate the conversation and some of the folks will just be reluctant to speak up because they have insecurities about their ideas or they’re just a different personality type. We really want to stress to our staff that no idea is a bad idea and it’s important to just get it out there. At the same time, we time-box certain things to make sure we're prioritizing where we can make the most impact.

When it comes to hosting brainstorms, it's important to include a variety of people. For example, we recently held a brainstorm about our website and we brought in stakeholders from all the major teams so it wasn't just marketing or design that was a part of the conversation. We wanted to make sure that customer service, product and engineering were also present because even though they aren't the ones writing copy or designing what goes on the website, they're talking to our customers on a daily basis. They understand the problem and it’s nice that we can directly ask them, “Hey, are there things we might be missing?”

One thing we also do to promote diversity of thought as well is to give people a chance to digitally submit ideas whenever they want and before brainstorms. We look at those suggested ideas to see if there should be any next steps at a regular cadence.

How important do you feel creativity is as a soft skill?

It’s one of the most important skills now for marketers or anybody in business. At Ownr we encourage people to black out time to take walks and reset to boost creativity. There were some folks scheduling meetings over the holidays and we decided to cut off all meetings, telling employees, “This is time for you to reflect and think about the less obvious things you want to tackle.”

What are you most excited about for 2023?

I'm really fascinated by artificial intelligence – I feel like it’s a really great tool and it’s inspired, team members to think a little bit differently. I don't think we're gonna lose our jobs anytime soon, but I think AI is a really good way to think outside of the box and gain efficiency. For example, Chat GPT. I asked it what Ownr was and I was surprised when it came back with a pretty accurate response. For us, we’re thinking about how a user might actually perceive these results. I also think Dall-E is intriguing when it comes to visualizing certain ideas and I’m fascinated by where this is going to go and how it’s going to be integrated into search. Is it going to be super important for people to think about SEO in the context of AI? We’ll see.

I’m also excited about user-generated content. We're working with a lot of creators (all entrepreneurs) and we like to share their voice and their stories. We are doubling down on UGC, showcasing the human side of the brand because brands are not machines and our users are real people. It’s so important to tell that human story and build a brand that is actually for humans.


Want to workshop how to better integrate AI or UGC into your marketing strategy? Or maybe you just want to foster collaboration amongst a diverse set of hybrid teams? Drop us a line about how our creative problem-solving training may be a good fit for your team.


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