Margaret Wolfson

Almost anything done well and fully is an all-consuming affair. The harder and more focused you work, the better the results.

For more than a decade Margaret Wolfson has worked as a brand naming specialist for global and boutique agencies, leading out projects and developing company, product, and service names, brand stories, and marketing messages for both established and emerging companies. In 2014, she founded River + Wolf, a brand naming service and messaging company. As the Founder and Chief Creative of River + Wolf, Margaret is involved in every project, applying her well-honed creative and strategic expertise to helping companies of every size and industry. A sought after thought leader, she has delivered talks on naming at such places as the Harvard Club, New York University, and the University of California Santa Cruz. She has also been published or quoted in leading journals among them Forbes, The Next Web, the New York Times, NBC, Fast Company, and Crain’s to mention a few.

In addition to her branding pursuits, Margaret is an award-winning author of several books and accomplished artist-entrepreneur with a long history of producing/performing spoken arts concert throughout the world. Margaret received an MA from New York University.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

Before launching River + Wolf, my brand naming agency, I was a professional storyteller and writer. Like naming, these professions involved the compression of language–I distilled sprawling epics and myths into either one-hour performances or short, illustrated books. I also have always been drawn to brand names, especially those that evoked imagery. This interest led to my work as a naming consultant—something I did parallel to performing for eight years. It was a great way to spend down time during performance tours. After a number of years as a naming consultant, I began working as a freelance creative director for a naming agency. I could have continued in this vein, but given my strong entrepreneurial orientation, the next logical step was to start my own agency. So in 2014, I launched River + Wolf.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

There is no typical day. Some days are filled with client calls or meetings. Other days are occupied with proposal writing, name development, research, and general business upkeep. Regardless of the tasks at hand, I spend no less than 10 hours every day on River + Wolf.

How do you bring ideas to life?

General idea development for the business (as distinct from the naming process) is all about exploring and sharpening. First, I deeply research everything directly or indirectly related to an idea I have for the business. For example, I am presently exploring perfume naming—an area of great interest. So I am reading everything about the perfume industry, from history to marketing.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I am fascinated by Artificial Intelligence—especially as it relates to trademark research and name development. In terms of name development, I don’t believe it can ever substitute for human creativity and imagination, but I see ways it can be a supportive tool.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

As mentioned earlier, I put in 10 hours of real work time almost everyday. Swimming is also crucial. Swimming energizes both my mind and body. And I do some of my best thinking while doing laps.

What advice would you give your younger self?

All creative fields, whether in the pure arts, as my earlier career, or the applied arts as I practice now, require business knowledge. Looking back, I would have spent more time understanding how money works.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Less is generally more in design and language, but not in work. The so-called 80/20–20 percent work for 80 percent of the result—is just not true. Work/life balance is also a myth. Almost anything done well and fully is an all-consuming affair. The harder and more focused you work, the better the results.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

As an entrepreneur it is very easy to get caught up in the latest trends, the breaking news, the loudest sound bytes. But it is important to stretch beyond that. Feed your mind and soul through reading philosophy, history, literature, and poetry. Listen to the world’s greatest music. Visit museums. Put yourself in touch with the timeless. The noise around us is very seductive and of course it is important to understand what is going on. But much of it is also ephemeral. Ground yourself in proven greatness.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Deeply understanding my industry and the digital world it operates in. Doing everything at the highest possible level—whether it is the work itself or things ancillary to the work. Never cut corners. And always, treat clients, even if they are difficult, with utmost respect and courtesy.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I haven’t had a “failure” yet, though there are areas I need to improve. One of these is to do a better job in keeping perspective when things get challenging—to always focus on the best case rather than the worst-case scenario.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Find a need—a real need—and fill it. In my industry, for example, many start-ups need a name but cannot afford the services of a professional naming agency. The alternative–crowdsourcing–is not very useful. The names provided by run-of-the-mill crowdsourcing sites are generally sub par and do not stand up to the rigors of trademark clearance. This is because the contributors are not experts in brand naming–which is a complex and tricky field. A hybrid platform–one composed of a small “crowd” of naming experts who each contribute two, pre-screened names (according to a well developed brief)–could address this need. The professional namers would be paid a much higher rate on selection of their name than a typical crowdsourcing model, but it could still be a way for start-ups to get quality at a somewhat reduced rate. I think of this as “bespoke” crowd sourcing. I have already developed a theoretical model, if anyone is interested in learning more.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I increased the monthly spend on Google AdWords. While there are mixed opinions on AdWords, it has been very helpful to our company.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Google Adwords has been very useful to our business. We are also fans of Freshbooks. It is such a clean and simple interface for invoicing.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

In the business realm, I suggest The One Thing by Gary Keller. This book drives home the importance of focused attention—something that is crucial to a successful business.

What is your favorite quote?

I love this line from The Rose Garden, a long poem by the medieval Persian poet, Sa’di: “In the sea are riches beyond compare, but if you seek safety it is on the shore.”

Key learnings:

  • Enrich your mind to enrich your business.
  • Do everything in work and life at the highest possible level.
  • Identify an area of real need and fill it.
  • In terms of services your business offers, go deeper rather than wider, especially when you are first starting out.
  • Do everything you can to satisfy your client, even if it means going over scope (within reason).
  • Learn everything possible about your industry.