51: Positioning Yourself As A Premium Brand Through Wild Transparency // Valerie Gernhauser
Most advice about becoming a premium brand focuses on developing a luxury brand presence and targeting customers with the highest budgets. Valerie Gernhauser flips this notion on its head as she shares how she’s become one of the most sought out wedding planners in the country by bridging an industry and openly sharing everything she knows.
On this episode, Valerie and I discuss:
Getting past the fear of instilling boundaries with clients,
The result of sharing her business strategy with her entire industry,
Why your ideal client shouldn’t be ‘the ones with the most money,’ and
How she’s using storytelling to showcase her skill set.
MEET VALERIE GERNHAUSER
Valerie graduated from law school in 2009, just a few short months after the credit crisis that turned the economy on its head. It was the worst job market for people coming out of law school, historically.
Her husband, whom she met in law school, and she were working at a small law firm in New Orleans. Just six weeks before their wedding Valerie got laid off. They were married, went on their honeymoon, and her husband was laid off from his job.
They thought, “Well, we’re both lawyers. Why don’t we start our own practice?”
In the midst of unemployment and starting something of their own, Valerie got pregnant.
At 9 months pregnant, Valerie woke up at 2:00 in the morning, looked at her husband and said, “I’m going to start a wedding planning company. I’m going to call it Sapphire Events and I’m going to set out to do the best weddings in New Orleans. This is how I’ll contribute to our finances.”
Her husband, while supportive, chalked it up to hormones and fell back asleep.
Fast forward a few months, Valerie was intent on starting the business. She created a photoshoot—from concept to execution—in ten days to show her work. And she balanced raising a newborn with starting a business, from the ground up. Sapphire Events was born.
I’M A HUSTLER, BABY
Since 2011, Sapphire Events has been featured in Brides, Glamour, People, Martha Stewart Weddings, and many other top tier media publications. She’s been thinking lately a lot about what’s contributed to her level of success.
She’s at the precipice of taking her business to the next level with destination events and as such, has been thinking a lot about what got her to where she is today.
Overnight success does not apply to her.
She considers herself a consummate student and she’s hustled every day since she woke up at 2:00am with the idea for her business.
Valerie has made a lot of sacrifices to get her business where it is. Her first year in business she worked 47 weddings—and that’s with a small child at home. In fact, she’s never had the freedom of growing a business without also balancing family.
Putting boundaries in place was a lesson she learned early on. She’s come to find that clients will actually respect you more when you have boundaries in place. They won’t feel like you’re just taking their money and running off, as many newbie business owners fear.
As for finding her ideal client, Valerie has been able to identify who she doesn’t want to work with rather than narrowing down to a specific type of client she does. Those red flags she’s trained herself to look for help her determine good fit.
While the novice business owner typically says, “I want clients with lots of money,” so does everyone. But simply having money doesn’t mean they’ll be respectful of your work and time. And, in her experience, often people with lots of money aren’t very respectful.
SHARING HER STRATEGY WITH HER COMPETITION
Valerie’s now started attracting more of the type of clients she wants to work with by putting herself out there and being vulnerable. She’s sharing information that in the traditional sense of business you might otherwise keep close to your chest—things like process and pricing.
If anyone has heard her talk for more than five minutes, they’ve probably heard Valerie talk about how she sells, how her process works, and what her contracts say. She especially likes having these conversations with her competition—other planners in her market.
When she first started doing this, those who had been in the industry for years told her she was crazy. “You’re giving your recipe to your competitors to know how to sell against you. And they’re going to undercut you,” they said.
Valerie knew that could happen, but felt she had nothing to lose. If no one in the industry is talking about these topics, the industry can’t improve as a whole.
Even so, Valerie’s actually making more money than she’s ever made before. She’s attracting more of her target market than ever. And she has a wonderful community of colleagues in her market, which never existed when she first started her business. They’re friendly, open, supportive, and share business back and forth.
RAISING THE INDUSTRY STANDARD
In 2015, Valerie had been in business for four and a half years, continuing to raise her prices. She assumed she would continue raising them until she hit a ceiling. But that never happened. She kept raising her prices and people kept booking her.
The higher her prices went, she realized she was no more satisfied with the work that she was doing, nor the level of respect her clients were returning to her.
So she set out to be vulnerable and—as an experiment—shared what her new pricing structure would be. Rather than a flat fee, she would have a combination of a flat fee + 20% of the overall spend of a wedding.
After implementing, she had one of the most rigorous stretches in her business—12 events in 8 days. What she found was that she felt respected, valued, and content even though it was the hardest her company had worked. Feeling great, she went to Periscope (RIP) and shared her message.
The response was immediate. Valerie watched as groups of people came together and said, “We need to get together this week and talk about changing this in our market.”
Valerie decided to embark on a 19-city tour aptly titled, The Sapphire Sessions. She flew in and facilitated meaningful conversations about price, boundaries, and selling. She shared things like:
It’s okay not to operate out of a place of fear.
You can, and should, stick to your guns and tell a client they can’t rip apart your contract.
You don’t have to give a refund just because someone says they’re unhappy with you.
Boundaries are healthy.
You can get paid what you’re worth.
To this day, Valerie still will identify new planners in her market with potential and invite them to lunch. She’ll say, “I think you’re awesome, You’re the real deal. And I want you to raise your prices because I know that you’re not making what you should be in this market.”
She feels like if we can all lift up and truly make a business out of our work—not a hobby—that gives her longevity too.
What Valerie never mentioned in this conversation was a profit motivation. She wanted to be profitable, of course, but she was lifting up an industry—nearly for free—because she knew it would benefit everyone.
In turn, this approach raised Valerie’s profile in New Orleans and across the country. She was invited to speak on national stages and other business owners in the industry wanted to work with her.
USING STORYTELLING TO SHOW VALUE
As I was researching Valerie—before this show aired—I came upon a video on her website. It was a behind the scenes story of a wedding in New Orleans, put on under the harshest conditions.
While normally we only stay engaged with an online video for 2-3 minutes, I watched the entire 17 minutes. The suspense. The sense that you had a front row seat to disaster. It was all the makings of a Hollywood film.
I asked Valerie what her approach was with this video and others similar that she’s released.
Valerie said that her audience is visual and they crave information. She can talk about what she does for clients all day: writing a timeline, giving vendor recommendations, designing flowers and linens, etc. But what no one is putting out there—and what her audience is craving—is what it looks like behind the scenes.
So Valerie paid a local videographer studio, Studio Vieux Carre, to film behind the scenes of an extravagant wedding they were planning. She thought, “If we never get another wedding like this, I want to see and remember and feel how we actually pulled this off—I know people are going to ask me.”
The film continues to be a persuasive educational tool for her business. In fact, the videographers, who had worked with Valerie’s team on weddings previously, commented that they had never seen this side of the day either, because they are typically by the bride and groom’s side.
Valerie remains committed to producing one video a year because she knows video is king.
Speaking of video, after spending a year analyzing and researching the platform, Valerie just launched a YouTube channel for Sapphire Events. There are so many high ranking search terms in YouTube and so few results that are a year or less old.
She’s started the channel to inform her clients about wedding tips, in general. She’s committed to posting every four days, putting out the information that her clients are asking for so that a wider audience can benefit from the answers.
If you’re planning a wedding or want to see how Valerie is using video storytelling to engage her audience, be sure to check out her channel.