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John Starling, Founding Partner and CEO

Veteran and Teacher

John Starling is a veteran of the United States Air Force (1988-1992) and a graduate of The University of Baltimore’s English Department with a concentration in Professional Writing and Publications.  He has been labeled by his business community as “an idea machine” and “a king-maker” for the work he’s done for CEOs and their companies.  Whatever the title, he has taken an unconventional route his current place business.

Prior to entering the business world, (and actually beginning while he was still in college) John was a teacher of secondary and adult education, both in the U.S. and in South Korea.  In the U.S. he taught adult literacy to low-income women; adventure education and English to (severely emotionally disturbed) at-risk youth in an alternative high school and creative writing at an art school.  When asked about his prior life as a teacher in light of his role now as a business leader he’ll often remark “I’m still a teacher… it’s just that now I teach people how to grow their companies”.

Vice President, Marketing & Internet Business (1998-1999)
Shortly after leaving teaching, John joined a small company that was a major player in the asset backed securities market as the Director of Marketing and became the Vice President of Marketing and Internet Business at only 28 years old.  Having completed his duties he resigned from his former company.  He then founded the first in a series of 3 management-consulting firms, which he has owned and operated continuously and without interruption for 15 years.

Partner, Macdonald-Starling, Strategic Planning & Development, LLC
In 1998 John founded Macdonald-Starling, Strategic Planning & Development, LLC which focused on strategic planning and brand management for underserved closely held small companies (typically under 10M in gross revenues).

University trained as a professional writer and by then 3 years into his consulting career, John recognized the need that the Internet was creating for a business-to-business content development solution. Websites were being developed every day, but there was no reliable, professional solution for content development (the written words that describe the company’s value proposition) – so he and his business partner created it and “Smith Content, Inc.” was born.

CEO, Smith Content, Inc. (2001-2007)
In 2001 he co-founded Smith Content, Inc. and made a small piece of business history, as “Smith” was the first pure content development company in the United States.  Prior to its inception, the only available alternatives that a company had for professional copywriting were (sometimes unreliable) freelancers and (often overpriced) advertising agencies.  Smith Content changed all of that and was first to market in what is now a viable industry within marketing and marketing communications.

From 2001 through 2007 Smith Content developed the core brand and tactical marketing messages of over 300 middle market companies (5M to 500M) and major corporations (including Ford Motor Company, Burger King, Lincoln and CareFirst).

Principal and Managing Partner, Smith Growth Partners (2007-Present)
In an amicable parting of ways between he and his business partner, John gained full ownership of Smith Content in 2007 and rebranded the company as Smith Growth Partners, returning the company to its roots in strategic growth consulting while maintaining its expertise in content development and expanding into full-service marketing communications.  A respected business advisor and a graduate of the Self Expression and Leadership Program, he has embedded business advisement and executive coaching into everything SGP does.

Each year, Smith Growth Partners works with a small number of companies across various industries on issues of topline revenue growth, bottom line performance improvement and improvement of enterprise value.  

Corporate Trainer, Retreat Facilitator and Professional Speaker
John is top-flight professional speaker who typically performs 20-30 public speaking or corporate training engagements and/or retreats per year.  He regularly leads to intimate CEO peer groups as well as associations and trade groups where audiences have numbered up to 750 people.

John trains companies on: breakthrough revenue growth, peak performance achievement, leadership strategies and selling to the C-suite.  He has trained thousands of business people over his career as well as major corporations including Microsoft, Bank of America, Profunds, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Wells Fargo, to name a few.

See a short video of a recent growth strategy workshop here.

President and CEO, The Business Exit Forum (2012-Present)
In early 2012 Smith Growth Partners was asked to write the growth strategy for a business concept that would bring together top business advisors to advise CEOs as they grow and transition their companies within the context of an historic wave of generational business transactions (29% of all companies in the U.S. are expected to transition over the next 10 years as the baby boom generation ages and retires).  Starling’s recommendation was to form a nonprofit educational institution dedicated to this sort of executive education.  He was then asked to form and lead this organization (The Business Exit Forum) and currently serves as its President and CEO as it operationalizes the strategic plan, which he penned.

John has written for several business newspapers and magazines including The Baltimore Business Journal, Create, The Baltimore Sun and SmartCEO.  

From 2011 until 2013 John published a series of quarterly feature articles on the parallels between business growth strategy and the martial arts, which appeared in SmartCEO for its audience of over 60,000 business leaders.  That series is now being edited into an eBook (due out in 2014) and a hardback book (due Fall 2015) called “Black Belt Growth Strategy

Recently, John accepted another feature writing slot in SmartCEO where he is telling the stories of CEOs who have sold their companies.  The first article in the series was published in June 2013 and the series is called “Profiles in Growth”.

Community Involvement
In 2010 John (a life long martial artist and Black Belt) founded a free mentoring and martial arts school for low-income children in Baltimore City, The School of the Way.  The school teaches under-privileged young people the martial arts and offers life coaching to them as they set and breakthrough their life (and belt goals).  The students earn their place in school by doing monthly community cleanups.

Fox News did a feature on the school and you can view the video here.

Hobbies and Interests
John is a life-long practitioner of the martial arts and currently teaches in the free dojo he founded in Baltimore.  He also plays guitar and writes original country songs.  He is an avid sailor and typically sails at least once a week when the winds are fair.

Life Philosophy and Commitments
“I am very clear that I have a unique set of gifts and experiences to offer the world.  Few people can speak, write, come up with creative solutions, and lead people the way I can.  I am grateful for what I’ve been blessed with and I’m responsible for making a difference in the worlds with these gifts.

I once asked my daughter (when she was only 4 years old) “Do you know what daddy does for a living?” to which she replied “Sure.  You grow people’s lives”.  This is true.  And this is my commitment, my dharma (my purpose in life) my life philosophy and my leadership philosophy: spend your life in the service of others – your family, your partners, your employees, your clients and your community.  Work hard for them.  They deserve it as much as you deserve the gift of giving yourself.  Only take on projects that are worthy of your short time on this planet – projects that make a difference.  

Go out and make a difference in someone’s life every day.  Do that… and everything will work out just fine”.

Thank you,

John Starling


Click to download John Starling’s speaker’s kit 

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Smith Growth Partners is a veteran-owned small business.