In July 2009, Cat Lincoln and her BFF, Stefania Pomponi, both professional bloggers, took a 10-day road trip together to celebrate their 40th birthdays. “Yes, just like Thelma & Louise, except without (dumb) Brad Pitt or shooting a truck driver,” they wrote on their joint blog, 40 Whatever. The pair, from the San Francisco Bay Area, picked up a car provided by the Ford Motor Co. at its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, and drove to Chicago, where they attended the BlogHer conference. Along the way, the buddies published a series of playful posts giving the car enthusiastic mentions, and their followers then spread the story around the digital world. Ford was delighted with the publicity. And so were Cat and Stefania: The stunt marked the first success of their weeks-old social media agency, Clever Girls Collective.
Four years later, the company is on its way to $5 million in revenue and has a corporate-client list that includes Walgreens and American Express. Cat and Stefania have built up a network of more than 8,000 female bloggers, whom they pay $100 and up per post to promote a client’s product or service on the Web. “We find adventures together,” says Cat, “and Clever Girls is one more adventure that we turned into something huge.”
The two met in 1997 through a mutual friend and immediately discovered “a big shared frame of reference,” says Cat. “We both think reality TV is hilarious. We love the same movies, the same expensive moisturizers and sooty black eyeliners.” Stefania taught third grade in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, until her first child was born, in 2002. She started blogging for fun about parenting, and her quirky exuberance soon attracted several thousand subscribers. Cat was a marketing executive at Wells Fargo in San Francisco with an appetite for pop culture; she started blogging about celebrities and trends “as a lark,” she says. In 2007 she left Wells Fargo to pursue a full-time freelance marketing and blogging career.
One morning in April 2009, Cat sat down to a meeting with a client at the Cup & Cake café in San Francisco. Midway through, the client said, “Have you thought about starting a social media agency focused on women? Because if you did, we’d be your first client.” Cat’s mind started spinning with the possibilities. As soon as the meeting ended, she called Stefania. “You have to do this with me,” she said.
“It took me about a minute to say yes,” says Stefania.
The company they started, Clever Girls Collective, finds female social -influencers—bloggers, vloggers, tweeters, Pinners, Facebookers and -Instagrammers—who are already writing about their experiences with consumer products or services. Clever Girls then puts them under contract and deploys groups of 30 to 300 at a time on behalf of clients. Soon Stefania and Cat brought in two more people: Sheila Bernus Dowd, now CEO, and Kristy Sammis, who oversees marketing and the blogging network. Cat is in charge of sales, technology and client services, while Stefania focuses on PR and corporate communications.
Although Cat and Stefania had no difficulty winning over clients, “we started in the middle of the worst economy ever,” says Stefania. Social media budgets were tight. “I was paranoid that if my husband lost his job as a network- operations director, we wouldn’t have a place to live,” says Stefania, who is now separated. “So I moved my family—husband, three kids—from our house in Palo Alto into a two-bedroom apartment. We all made sacrifices.”
During their second year in business, Stefania and Kristy had maternity leaves that overlapped, making Cat, who does not have children, and Sheila the only constants at the top. “For that stretch, we were always down one or two leaders, and the rest of us filled the gaps. After that, I completely ran out of gas. I got pneumonia,” she says. “We call those the dark times. It’s all a blur now.”