Founders Q&A: The Journey Northbound

During this Founders Q&A, we interviewed Northbound Founders, Michelle McRae
Managing Partner and Samantha Temple Neukom, Chief Brand Officer to get to know the journey of building this women-owned, strategy-first consultancy.

How did Northbound begin?
We started boot-strapped and having only known each other two months from an introduction by mutual acquaintances. What we had in common were values around relationship, integrity, excellence, and the value of brand strategy to a client’s business and to brand work. As with so many women-owned businesses, we got our start with a few projects where we had been recommended by other women and past clients who believed in us and what we were up to. We have been careful to pay that kind of sponsorship forward.

Northbound began after a series of positive moments of intense alignment between Sam and me – on a relationship level, a curiosity level and ambition to be excellent. We’re both explorers that revel in what’s possible. Our partnership as two women has been powerful and aided by a multitude of clients, connectors and advice-givers, all of whom went out of their way to give meaningfully to our start-up. Our momentum and confidence have been fueled by those supporters and the team who has joined us and whom we believe wholeheartedly.
I will say, also, there’s an element in both of us about looking a client in the eye and making a commitment to deliver – smashing it out of the ballpark – that I love. Our integrity, putting our names on the line, is a moment of intensity and contribution to our beloved clients that’s the essence of our day-one foundation.

Why the name Northbound, what does it mean to you?
It means that we’re on the journey with our clients, helping them stay on the path that leads to their true North. We don’t believe brand is a fixed place or set of rules, but that it’s a dynamic, purpose-driven place you’re always pointing toward and innovating from. We are the team that can help to calibrate a client’s compass, and a client’s job is to use that compass to guide all their activities moving forward - not just their mar-com - so that they are living brand integrity, the kind that ensures resonance with stakeholders and thus long-term durability of the business.

To me, our name is a promise of journey, a promise of outcome (even though that outcome is unknown at the start). There’s an essence of togetherness in it, that combined with our clients the journey is worthwhile, brave, exploratory and slightly adventurous. The way our logo was drawn with connected letters reinforces for me our team, and the connections with clients, there’s a flow to it that is a nice symbol of the way we work together and what is created.

What does it mean to you to be a women-owned business?
It meansdoing things differently, without compromising on excellence. It means creating a new way of being great at brand strategy - one that is kind, but also tough. Sometimes that’s hard. It means folks have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, with coming at problems and challenges from a collaborative place. It means asking teams to show up differently, using their self-advocacy and self-knowledge to guide them, rather than them waiting on being handed hours, projects, solutions, or directions. It means getting knocked down by comments like “are you ready for the board room?” or “your criticism is too direct” and getting comfortable sifting through what’s personal and what’s prejudice. It means paying it forward every time I’ve had a boss or company or client treat me well or making room for my whole self. It means being open about the struggles of single parenting and running a company, knowing it will make some people very uncomfortable, but that’s okay because I’m doing it for the folks for whom it creates an opening and a pathway where there were once barricades.

It means embodying an entrepreneurial spirit. It feels natural to me to be a women-owned business. It’s a reflection of deep partnership, hard work and stick-to-itness. The path I am on now is a reflection of each experience of the past, the bosses, mentors and friends who supported my thinking and encouraged me to stand strong; it’s has come to be a reflection of my commitment to others who seek to further an idea, their vision for themselves, a business plan or forge a new path. It means leading with my heart, with good intentions and for the resilience to stay on the path regardless of any headwinds.

What is unique about working at Northbound and the environment you created?
It’s hard to answer this one right now during COVID. We are all still working from home, and I for one am longing to see faces at least a few times a week in person. This is such a people business, and this year has been tough. So, I’ll offer that our hope is that the Northbound environment is different in two ways.

1) Northbound combines excellence with generosity. Excellence because we provide world-class brand strategy, naming and brand design. Generous because every person here is on the team. No one at Northbound is cut-throat, and everyone is here to support each other, the client, and the work.

2) Northbound isn’t paternalistic. And because that’s fairly different, it has two edges. While we aim to be a self-directed culture, sometimes that can be a hard adjustment for folks to make. We seek to be a culture where the people who work here get to say what they need, and where they want to go. It requires that people communicate, speak up, and engage in solving the challenges or problems they see.

At Northbound everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow and contribute – if they are a seasoned brand strategist, someone new in the career or interested to pursue something new. The common denominator across our team is an unrelenting curiosity and passion for excellence – to achieve for our clients and for their contributions as a team and individually. We are all collaborators in practice and in heart.

A true differentiator for us is the fundamental core belief in teamwork as well as maintaining an active voice and bravery to work in the gray. And, we honor individual requests for growth, for enhancing curiosity and enhancing personal contributions and responsibility.

What are you most excited about with the work Northbound is doing?
When we are doing category-defining, business-framing, culture-changing work with a client who is at a point of transformation, that’s when I get most excited. That kind of work can come from a variety of types of clients: it can be Microsoft meeting the moment with employee wellness cloud-based software and services in the middle of the global pandemic. Or, it can be a start-up like OJO coming off a few SPAC-funded acquisitions and trying to increase equity, and the ability to build wealth, in the world of homeownership. Or, it can be with a non-profit in the throes of deciding whether to change their name and identity to try and stand for more than just Washington Green Schools, but lay claim to an entire EarthGen.

I LOVE to see the trust our clients place in us to forge new paths together, to reward our work with even more trust and confidence. I am struck by the increasing expertise of many team members and their moments to share it, consultatively with their clients and teammates. I also love to see the seamless overlap between insights, strategy and creativity brought to bear on clients of all shapes and sizes. I feel our team striving to create even higher emotional connections with our work, landing big ideas full of insight, inspiration and imagination.

What is the vision for Northbound? Where do you see the consultancy in 5 -10 years?
We are aiming to be doing world-class, brand-strategy fueled, purpose-driven, beautiful work with a team that meets or exceeds the big brand strategy, brand design and naming agencies coming out of New York, London, or LA, wrapped in a culture that’s modern, accountable, vulnerable, collaborative, and kind.

I see our community continuing to deepen its complexion and influence over the next 5-10 years. Through thought leadership internally and with our clients we will come to be the modern embodiment of brand strategy, naming and design. Our culture will reflect that complexion as well, curious, collaborative, striving for excellence and maintaining kindness.

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