Cookson reflects on starting communications business 5 years later - 'Don't do it half way'

By MICHAEL COUSINEAU, New Hampshire Union Leader

This article was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on August 29, 2015. See more. 
MANCHESTER — Matt Cookson remembers the early days of starting his communications firm five years ago when he sometimes skipped paying himself and the times when his family helped clean the office.

“Don't do it half way,” Cookson advised anyone thinking of starting a new business. “You are either all in or don't do it because it's going to be 60 to 70 hours a week, which is what I was at for the first three years.”

Cookson is working a more manageable 50 hours a week these days and taking his own advice on honing the message.

Next month, he's launching a new website and changing the company name, Cookson Strategies, to Cookson Strategic Communications.

The move was triggered after a friend walked by the sign in his Lowell Street office building and wondered what line of work the company did.

“‘What do we do?'” Cookson recalled thinking afterward. “So, OK strategies is a buzzword, but I pondered this. I said the overall goal could be social media; it could be traditional; it could be marketing. It could be digital, but the overall goal is about visibility.”

“We are rebranding as a visibility company because the bottom line is people want or need to be seen in order to become customers, advocates, members, donors, and I think that's critical,” he said last week. “It's less the vehicle that gets you there. It's more the end results of getting people to be seen, especially in this ridiculously noisy world now of communications.”

Cookson's current clients include Antioch University and the New Hampshire High Technology Council, where he also serves as executive director.

Paul Mailhot, who serves as the council's chairman of the board, said Cookson's work at the university system and PC Connection gave him an opportunity to develop important connections across the state.

“When he started his own firm, he had that foundation to grow off from,” said Mailhot, Dyn's vice president of business development and sales.

“The council's fortunate to leverage his business, but we're also benefitting from his network and his experience working within the state of New Hampshire,” he said.

Back in 2009, Cookson said he could sense the University System of New Hampshire would be cutting back and wasn't sure his position as associate vice chancellor for external relations would survive.

By the next year he founded Cookson Strategies, with help from a $45,000 loan from the Manchester Economic Development Office. He found space on Lowell Street and moved there in early 2011.

The loan helped equip the office and provide some cash as he waited to get paid from clients, including the university system.

He said “you take the big gulp” as he waited for money to flow in.

“At least I came in with a couple clients that I knew would be with me for a little while,” he said. “I had this debate: Should I do this solo or should I build a team? I opted to build a team.”Today, Cookson, 51, employs seven people plus himself, and the company is debt-free.

Finding a new opportunity and recruiting clients often is a matter of whom you know in a small state.“A lot of it was word of mouth and the network, which I think is a special attribute of the New Hampshire business community, is that two degrees of separation here,” the Bedford resident said.