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Megan Wendell of Canary Promotion

Many entrepreneurs tell old war stories about starting their companies in their parents' basement or garage.

But how about from a tour van?

When she started Glenside, Montgomery County-based Canary Promotion 2001, Megan Wendell was a working musician (she's a Berklee College of Music grad) and on tour when she was running her first public relations campaigns for clients. In a pre-smartphone age, that was difficult, but a strong, established network and a healthy stream of clients helped Canary sing successfully.

While she still considers herself a musician, Wendell can also say she is founder and president of one of the fastest growing PR and marketing firms in Greater Philadelphia, where it works with many arts and cultural organizations and events. Canary is on track to grow revenue 20 percent, Wendell just hired two new staffers to service about 25 clients annually, which is comprised of both project-based and longstanding retainer clients.

What was the inspiration behind Canary?
My own experience as an artist and my personal passion for the arts was the original inspiration for starting Canary Promotion. I wanted to create a business that approaches PR and marketing strategies with an artistic sensibility that engages and motivates audiences in an authentic way.

I’m a Berklee College of Music graduate and spent about a decade touring, recording and promoting the records of my own bands and others through an independent record label I founded with my husband and band mate, Mason Wendell (now a web designer/developer for NBCUniversal).

When we moved to Philadelphia in late 2001 and got involved in the local arts scene, we began working with arts and culture nonprofits like arts festivals, theater and dance companies and museums. That’s led to a pretty exciting mix of clients – a wide range of arts and educational organizations, foundations and other mission-driven and creative business clients.

How is Canary growing?
We’ve expanded services as we’ve expanded our staff.  We now offer our clients full-service communications – integrated marketing and engagement strategy, media relations, social media campaigns and other services depending on client needs. My team has a great breadth of experience – a social media-savvy theater aficionado, a seasoned cultural and educational marketing professional, a former arts editor — and they’re all committed to Canary’s mission.

What resources did you take advantage of to launch Canary?
The vibrant arts scene is what attracted me to Philadelphia. I took full advantage of the collaborative nature of that scene, got involved and made connections as an artist, as a grass roots organizer and as an entrepreneur.

But I also had new things to learn as a business owner and was able to benefit from programs at UPenn’s Legal Clinic, the Wharton Small Business Development Center and the Women’s Business Development Center.

What resources did you take advantage of to grow Canary?
I think it’s incredibly important for entrepreneurs, and particularly for women in business, to have a supportive network of advisors and peers. I work with a strategic business consultant, Janet Ries Stern, and an excellent CPA, Susanne Spinell Shuster at Shechtman Marks Devor PC, on growth strategy and planning, and I regularly connect with other professional women in and outside my field.

What's the biggest challenge you've overcome, personally or professionally?
Work-life balance has always been a challenge. As a business owner driven by mission and passion, I have often put work above all other priorities, including my health. Now, as a working mom my schedule is even more challenging, but being a mom has also brought me perspective. I’m better for my family, my clients and my staff when I’m happy and healthy, so I’ve learned to take the personal and family time I need – and I’m working toward running my first 5K this fall!

Talk about the moment where you knew you made the right decision in starting this company?
There are so many moments that continually affirm my decision to start and grow Canary Promotion. I still get as excited about a great feature story or a client’s sold out show as I did over a decade ago. We’ve grown and matured right alongside the arts and culture community. Our 10-year client FringeArts is about to open a contemporary arts center on the Delaware River waterfront; we helped the Association for Public Art promote Open Air which was just recognized as one the country’s top public art projects; and we’ve worked closely with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as they’ve infused $9 million of new funding into the Philadelphia arts community.

Recently, a client introduced me to a colleague, not as their consultant but as the organization’s thought partner, and that’s when I know we’re getting it right. That is what we strive to be for every client.

How can we stimulate small business to be an engine for job creation?
Small businesses need tax incentives to help them grow and easier access to affordable health care benefits to attract and retain talent.

What advantages does being in your region hold for entrepreneurs?
Greater Philadelphia is an excellent place for social entrepreneurs with its high number of nonprofit organizations and a lot of young, engaged citizens – the arts patrons of the future. In the creative sector, we have the support of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Philadelphia offers world-class cultural experiences while staying affordable, and we’re close to other major cities.

Where does your region need to improve in terms of support for entrepreneurs?
The city’s tax policies need to be friendlier to small businesses, and the suburbs need to be more proactive in attracting and retaining a creative class. The region also needs to be attractive to young families who have businesses here, and that means quality education that places the arts as a priority, not an afterthought.

What's the big differentiator for Canary?
I think it’s our slightly unusual path to the business of arts and culture that gives us a unique perspective and an authentic voice that sets us apart from other communications firms. Though we have a solid foundation in “traditional” PR and marketing, there’s never a standard approach; we’re always looking to innovate and asking, “what’s next?”

What's next for Canary? 
We’re being approached to manage larger and more complex campaigns that really focus on multiplatform audience engagement, as well as projects that have a national as well as regional focus and impact. I’m deepening my connections with peers across the country and will be presenting at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Portland, OR in November.

Something that drives us at Canary is that there’s always something new to learn – a new platform, a new way of reaching audiences, a smarter way to leverage organizations’ existing resources to better connect with the people who really care about what they do.  Our clients are endlessly creative and constantly exploring new territory – and we love that we can do that too.

-- by Joe Petrucci

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