Our CEO, Heather's Blog - Small Business Smarts
A Small Business Owner, Wife, Mother, Friend and Resident of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
Her blog, Small Business Smarts, is the result of her quest to use her personal experiences, both good and bad, to help other small business owners find success while “keeping it real.”
You won’t get boilerplate lessons, you’ll get the raw truth and an insight into Heather's life in the process. Her goal is that you learn from her mistakes and become inspired by her victories.
I was extremely lucky. Although, luck is relative. I mean, you have to take initiative to take advantage of luck, right? So I like to say I was lucky, but really, I capitalized on an opportunity. A great hallmark of entrepreneurs.
The year was 2000 and I was hired to run the sales office of a small start-up company. Over the next 7 years, as my career grew, so did the company. To the tune of $500 Million Dollars. So, by 2007, while my paycheck was fat, so was the organization and I frankly had enough money in stocks to give the proverbial F-you and walk away. A dream, right? I mean, who hasn’t wanted to walk into their bosses’ office, set their laptop on fire and walk away?
And then reality set in.
I quickly realized that getting a job with a compensation package of $300,000 – $400,000 a year wasn’t that easy. I went on several interviews where the interviewer asked me to “sell me this pen.” Um, no thanks.
Never being one to turn away from a challenge, and full of hubris, I mean, I just helped grow a one million dollar company into a 500 million dollar company, I thought, hey, why not just buy my own company?
I can tell you that in the spring of 2007 every pizza shop, liquor store and hair salon in Massachusetts seemed to be for sale. Not quite what I had in mind. Anyone who has ever seen me cook, drunk or do my own hair would know none of those options were going to work.
And then I saw it.
“Luxury Real Estate Magazine” FOR SALE. It sounded great. Heck, my background is in advertising – how hard could it be? Famous last words.
It was now the summer of 2007, I was the proud owner of Distinctive Homes Magazine and while the real estate market wasn’t as robust as it had been, I never in a million years would have anticipated what was about to happen. As everyone knows, shortly after, the financial markets crashed, whirling us into a recession reminiscent of the Great Depression.
Let me spell out in no uncertain terms what that meant for the company I just bought: No customers. My magazine generated revenue from advertising sales, to real estate agents. The client list, all of the goodwill that I bought all went away. Up in a puff of smoke, instantly.
Many of my peers closed up shop. In fact, today, my printer tells me that out of 40 nationwide real estate magazines he printed at the time, I am the only one that made it through.
How did I do it? The list is long and varied, in fact, I call this period my character building days. The bottom line is that I used the time to figure out what value the company did have left, figured out a way to increase that value proposition and went out and built relationships with my potential client base in a way that forged deep meaningful relationships. These are relationships that I cherish and the people that took a chance and believed in my vision back then are people I would lay down in front of traffic for today. People like Al Becker from Jack Conway, Chobee Hoy, Roberta Goldfarb from the Realty Guild, Jamie Zudru from William Raveis, Larry Rideout from Gibson Sothebys, Jason and Kerri Bonarrigo, Karen Dumond from MAR, Jim Lowenstern from Castles Unlimited, Kelly O’Ryan from Coldwell Banker and Kathleen and Robert Byrne were beacons. These people (and many more) allowed me to get to know them, they got to know me and together we found solutions for their companies. These relationships were not built for short term gain, they were built from honest exchange and they still, to this day, mean a whole lot to me.
It was not easy. It was exhausting. I cried many times. But through this strife and stress, I got creative. This experience allowed me to reinvent our offerings and build a platform that showed that the company had foresight and fortitude. During this time I also started a Facebook page for the company, and as a result of these efforts, and my unique background in online advertising and marketing, I was able to increase business and teach my prospects how they could find the same success, for free. This was a way to get in front of the right people and I was able to use my knowledge to help them without ever asking for anything in return. I was able to take lemons and make it into proverbial lemonade, while at the same time fighting a lawsuit by a former friend.
So here’s the lesson: No matter what hurdles you have in front of you, there is a solution. You need to have the humility to ask for help, defer to other people, execute against a plan and show value to your target audience. You have to dig deep, and decide to fight. You need to get outside of your comfort zone and you need to believe that you can achieve a positive result. If it weren’t for these beliefs, I would have been curled up in a ball and probably would have lost my home.
If I can do it, you can do it.
Most people who know me perceive me as being successful. What people don’t know is that I don’t see myself as a picture of success today, I only see the potential for what I could be in the future. It’s this unquenched thirst for more, and the feeling of exhilaration I experience in seeing other business people get it when I explain what they could be, that fuels my jets .
I’ve just passed my 5 year anniversary as a small business owner and entrepreneur. In the past 5 years I have; bought an existing company, started a new company, gone through employees, gotten sued, was betrayed by my best friend and business partner, almost had to file bankruptcy, was audited by the IRS, dealt with some health scares, and yet, here I sit today, able to be retrospective and confident knowing that my businesses are strong, my fortitude stronger and wishing to share my trials and tribulations with you.
If I can save you from getting sued, from getting audited, from losing a valuable employee, from making a poor business decision, or impact you in a meaningful way that causes you to become a better business person, by sharing my experiences – then I’ve accomplished my goal in spending the precious little time I have writing this blog.
So Who am I?
Here’s what the world sees: I’m a wife and mother of two small children (a girl and a boy). I live in a 20 room estate, have a vacation home, a time share at Disney and access to family real estate all around the world. We drive nice cars, I am able to feed my addiction to jewelry (although you’ll never see me wearing most of it!), and I have great friends. Sounds picture perfect, right?
Wrong. Everyone has their issues.
Here is what I see: An overweight (notice my profile picture just has my face), tired, exasperated business owner, (brandishing a perpetual headache) who is always trying to sell something to someone; An idea to my kids about why they should stop fighting, a way of thinking to my employees so that they can offer the level of service worthy of my company, a picture of what increased business will look like to a potential client. I haven’t taken a vacation in 5 years without having to work. I am always “on” thinking about how we can do things better and I never seem to have enough time.
The difference I’ve found between myself and other people is that I know how to make money. Yes, it’s true. I’ve found so many business people who think they are doing a great job but aren’t making any money. (Most of these people ask me to go into business with them.) At the end of the day, all that matters is that you make money when you own a business. So how do you do that and provide a great product or service, grow the business, give back to the community and end up whole at the end of the day? Well, I can and will tell you starting with my next blog. Let’s take a ride together……
Or at least let’s talk about Exposing Yourself.
That’s the name of my public relations/marketing firm. What do you think of it? I thought it was clever.
I learned today that apparently some people don’t.
Today I had the humbling experience of getting canned. Rather, my company got canned but it is essentially the same thing to me. It was quite unexpected and from a client that I truly enjoyed working with. As the story goes, they are going through some organizational changes and are going to bring their PR in house. I have to admit, it was hard to stomach at first and I couldn’t help taking it personally, but ultimately, I realize that business is business! I am grateful for the time we had in getting to work with this client.
The surprise of the cancellation quickly wore off and I was happy to think about the fact that we are bringing on a new client tomorrow.
Here’s the part that didn’t wear off so quickly:
I was inadvertantly copied on an email about their impending cancellation where at the end of the email chain, the executive who initiated the cancellation wrote, “And by the way, what kind of PR person would name their company: Expose Me?”
I was floored. I’m not usually speechless but this comment had my mouth agape. I felt personally insulted, hurt. I thought that people who did business with us appreciated our avante guard name. I thought it showed levity. I guess in this instance, I was wrong. To make matters worse, this comment was coming from someone I highly regarded. Someone who had, just two months ago, asked if I would ever be interested in coming on board with the company at an executive level, as an employee. That fact made it sting just a little bit more. Ouch.
You can imagine how excited I was to go to a meeting today with this client knowing that the people in the meeting were copied on this email that I wasn’t supposed to have seen.
So you might be wondering, how did the meeting go? Let me summarize: The company that once needed help suddenly had all of the answers.
Apparently we make it look easy and I choose to take this as a compliment!
In summary, I’m not sure what kind of PR person would name their company “Expose Me” but I can tell you that the kind of PR person that names themselves “Expose Yourself PR” is one that is creative, dedicated and would stop at nothing to get their clients the exposure and recognition that they deserve. I’m moving onward – what about you?
This week I learned a few things:
#1 – No, you cannot have it all
#2 – Good help is priceless
#3 – Be prepared to be unprepared
My children love their grandparents. They love them so much that without fail, every Friday they ask to go to their house for the weekend. For the first few months of this new routine my husband and I couldn’t believe our luck! The two of us were hanging out like single people on the weekends; travelling, getting to the point that we have our own host at Foxwoods and the general debauchery that one would expect a childless couple would have. But alas, the shine wore off the penny and we truly missed hanging with the babies. The babies, by the way, are 6 and 7.
This past weekend we put our foot down and insisted, over much contesting by the babies, that they stay with us and we would provide the best weekend ever. We’d show those kids just how much fun we can be and that those grandparents have nothing on us!
Cut to me mocking the legal release that required my signature before we were admitted to enter the famous Davis Farmland Corn Maze. I mean really, a release for a CORN MAZE?
The first hour and a half of our excursion went swimmingly. We walked them around, got them hopped up on sugar and were patting ourselves on the back for out doing those grandparents of theirs when my 7 year old fell off a rock wall. She fell a whopping 2 feet and started screaming.
I was instantly annoyed by the dramatics, and even slightly embarrassed, as we went on this adventure with our good friends and their children. Anyway, I knew there was nothing seriously wrong because my husband was so calm and he speaks child, a language I am still having a hard time understanding.
It was at that point that we got an escort out of the corn maze from the farmer’s daughter who was really a man dressed in a bra. Please don’t call DSS. It really sounded like a good idea at the time.
We found the closest hospital, “just to be sure,” and my husband carried her into the ER.
After 2 hours in the waiting room, and my questioning why she was shaking (turns out that wasn’t shaking it was writhing in pain,) she had a spiral fracture in both the tibia and fibula. Put my name in for Mother of the Year. I’m sure to win.
The torture of that day goes on and on, to the tune of having to be transported to another hospital via ambulance because there was no orthopedic on call at the first hospital to a 7 year old on crutches. The fun just wouldn’t stop.
I’m happy to report she’s now in a wheelchair and going back to school Monday.
Here’s where the business lesson comes in: I’ve got two companies, employees, clients and deadlines. I can’t tell my customers, “Sorry! No magazine this month, my daughter has a broken leg.” Like dawn over marble head I realized that the headlines in magazines that proclaim, “Yes, you can have it all!” are lying. I cannot have it all. I cannot fulfill my duties as a business owner and give my daughter the full time care she required this week.
So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I called in the big guns. Her grandmother was at our house before we got home from the hospital.
Joke as I might, I really don’t know what I would do without this support. There was no way I could do what needed to be done for the business this week and take care of my daughter who was essentially immobile. I didn’t think making a 7 year old choose whether she wanted me to help her this week or make money so I could feed her was a great position to put her in, especially considering how sensitive I was when she fell in the first place.
Having good help around you as a business owner is priceless. Whether they are good employees, a good support system, good clients, or good vendors, make sure you’re surrounded. I was recently quoted in a daily calendar, “You can have a deal with a good person go bad but you can never have a deal with a bad person go well.” Start collecting good people and make sure you are good to them in return!
Never in a million years would I think we’d exit a day of family fun with broken bones. This is where the third lesson I learned comes in. Prepare to be unprepared. I still feel unprepared for the next 16 weeks of caring for my daughter until she gets her cast off, but I’m thankful that this is all we have to worry about. Until next time………
I had the exciting opportunity to talk to one of Tony Robbin’s right hand men. When I say right hand man, I mean, he closes the show for Tony, he is an expert business consultant working with huge brands like Costco and is able to command $40k a month for his consultation services. This guy is no joke.
As we were talking, I started telling him that my company is finally ready to take on more clients, and he responded – well, I know a great PR company that can help. To which I replied with silence. It actually took me a minute to figure out he was talking about my company! Could I really be this dense?
Then he said something that was so simple, and something that literally woke me up. He said, “Why aren’t you doing for yourself what you do for everyone else?” DUH. Why wasn’t I?
I’d been so busy putting things in place to grow my client’s businesses that I completely forgot to grow mine!
Embarrassingly, it took this slap to wake me up. What on Earth was I thinking?
So it was with this, that I started to take my own advice. Can I just tell you how exciting it is to do marketing for yourself? Taking a step back to reevaluate can be daunting but boy it can be fun, too! I challenge anyone who is struggling to simply change your vantage point. Sometimes a different perspective can turn you on your head. It sure did for me.
I am proud to report that I’ve spoken with more people about our marketing services in the last 2 weeks than I had in the last 6 months combined! Amen to that.
So I ask you: What advice do you give out that you aren’t taking yourself?
Boulevard of Broken Bones
How to Take Your Own Advice
It's been a while since my last blog post, and that is frankly because I've been a whirling dervish. Within the last 30 days, I have had an employee leave, conducted interviews, hired someone new, wrapped 182 Christmas presents for various people, brought on 4 new clients and managed to squeeze in Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year's festivities. Have I said I'm tired yet, because I am.
I'm also excited because I have become acutely aware of something detrimental I have been doing for a very long time and now I get the chance to change it. Isn't that great? It's it exciting when something clicks and you can take control over a situation to improve your life?
Here is what I learned in a nutshell: I learned that I need to pay attention when people tell me things. I'll tell you a story to illustrate what I mean and change names to protect the innocent (and the guilty!).
About 8 months ago, it became clear that due to growth we were going to need to hire additional help. I really took time to sort out what type of person we were looking for. I conducted countless interviews until I found someone that was perfect. This person was perfect for many reasons. They had the skills to do the job, the desire to do the job and we got along great.
That is exactly what I told myself.
The truth is, the person didn't have the skills or the desire and to be honest, after the first week, I really didn't like them that much. But, because I needed someone, I convinced myself this wasn't the case. I convinced myself that they were PERFECT.
I think back and think about this employee saying things like, "I wasn't going to even respond to your email for a phone screen because I thought, oh, there are probably many more people, more qualified than I am and I'll never get to the next step." and "I'm a writer first. I'll never think like that," in response to a conversation about how to approach a situation.
I remember an episode of Dr. Phil when he said, "When people tell you who they are, listen to them." Oh Dr. Phil, how right you are!
This person was telling me at every step that they were not right and I refused to listen.
You can imagine how this arrangement turned out. Let me give you the highlights: It took me twice as long to get things done because I had to triple check the work, my clients weren't thrilled with what was coming from this individual and I was personally being driven over the edge by the whiny, can't do attitude.
We parted ways and I was faced yet again with having to find someone. So, I called in my friend Sarah. Sarah is a psychotherapist. It's always nice to have a friend who's a psychotherapist. Sarah helped me go through resumes, conduct interviews and ultimately led me to the notion that I don't have to get people to LIKE ME in an interview - they should be getting me to LIKE THEM. Right. OF course. I thought I was smarter than this but apparently I'm not. In all honesty it was groundbreaking for me. In the past I had gotten lucky hiring by instinct, but it certainly wasn't a winning formula. Sarah taught me some great skills and I'm happy to say that she helped me find a truly great employee.
So in the new year, business owners, start paying attention to what people are telling you - even if you don't want to hear it. It will save you lots of aggravation in the future. Trust me.
Learning to Pay Attention
So, you want to Join the Club of Crazy Business Owners?
I was having an email correspondence with someone today who shared with me both her husband's and her dreams of being a business owner. While I was so happy that she thought enough to share this with me, I couldn't help myself from offering (unsolicited) advice. My advice was this - it takes an incredible amount of time and money to start and operate (and hopefully grow) a successful business.
I think that while some people know this inherently, they may not know what this "owning your own business" reality is. The reality is that if you want to start a brick and mortar business (like the one my friend wants) you need not only the money to rent/buy the space, build it out, market it and pay for employees to help you run it, but you also need to be able to support yourself for the year, maybe two, maybe five that it will take to have that business turn a profit. Don't forget that during this time that you are working toward turning this profit, you are devoted to this new baby every hour of every day. What is the price of your time? I'm not talking about the time that you would have been at work anyway - the 9 to 5 time, but the time that you would have been reading your kids a bedtime story, or enjoying a vacation, or cooking dinner because all of a sudden, you don't have that time anymore. Which brings up another point. You now need to factor in the cost of hiring people to help you do the duties you no longer have the time to do. So besides just being able to afford your mortgage and bills, you need to have the cash for a housekeeper (assuming you did your own cleaning before you started your business) and a nanny, because who is going to watch the kids when they get out of school and all summer?
Listen, I don't mean to be the Negative Nancy of business ownership, or the "dream killer," as my friend pointed out, because there are a lot of perks of owning your own business. However, I do feel the need to tell the WHOLE story, and that whole story has benefits and drawbacks. The benefits unfortunately, come long after the drawbacks which is why so many don't make it. For the sake of rounding out this story let's talk about some of the perks. For instance, once you've found the perfect employees who can do the jobs without a lot of supervision, you can have some time off. Being in control of your income is also something that can be exciting. Experiencing risk and reward is another major benefit of owning your own company. I haven't even mentioned write offs! I mean, what business owner doesn't enjoy some write offs?
So in summary - like everything there are positives and negatives. Make sure, before you embark on this journey that you know what you are getting yourself into. That's all.
It's Time to Start Coloring Outside of the Lines
Normally, my blog posts are about business and business lessons, and while this post can be applied to the business world, this blog is going to be a bit different.
What I really want to talk about today is something that means a lot to me. That subject is education, and specifically public education in my town, Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. You see, Shrewsbury is going through what many towns and school districts are going through around the country and that is rising costs for public education (and other services like Fire and Police) with no way to fund them.
I am very passionate about the schools both because I have two children in the system and because I have a spouse who is an elementary school teacher. While my husband doesn't work in Shrewsbury, I feel for the plight of the modern public educator in all areas.
In my town of Shrewsbury, we have an approximately 4 million dollar deficit between what the school department needs to start restoring services that were cut last year (21 teaching positions, books, and the list goes on and on) and what they have to operate with. There are many well-meaning citizens in town that have opinions on the subject that run the gamut, from; "Talk to the state as it’s the unfunded mandates that are killing us," to "The teachers unions and their salaries are killing us," to "I think teachers should be compensated more like private sector jobs," and "We will never get an override to pass." All valid points, but all points that don't do anything to help solve the issue. I'm really getting sick of hearing rhetoric without a solution stated. Go ahead and raise your point and then tell me what we CAN DO to fix the problem. I had a boss once who would never let us come into his office with a problem unless we also had a solution. Effective, I'd say! Talking about the issues and assigning blame isn't going to help anyone…it kind of reminds me of….Washington…..and as the title of this blog states, it's time to start coloring outside of the lines.
Why do we have to wait to get a bill for increased taxes to start contributing to the school fund? Raise your own taxes. If you care about our children's education NOW, like right now, when the schools need you, then cut a check. If you have faith in the school administration you don't need to question where or how the funds are going to be used. You CAN do something to help and you can make a difference. If you don't care, don't pay attention and don't write a check. Whether you can afford $5 or $5000, I bet if enough people decided to come together and take care of our own we could make a difference. Today I dropped off a $500 check to the gift fund for my children's school so the teachers could write PO's against it for things they need and supplies. It's time to stop complaining and touting big ideas that take forever to implement and to start doing something. Do anything you can. Whether you think it's too small to make a difference or not, the gesture sends a message and helps the cause, whatever your cause is. So I ask you - what are you going to do today to contribute to an actual solution instead of simply complaining about a problem?
PS - If you live near Shrewsbury, I'd love to invite you to an event to benefit the schools at my home: www.ShrewsburyGardenParty.com Let's do something together!
Marketing People are Snake Oil Salesmen
Yes, I'm a marketing person. No, I don't sell snake oil, but it's become clear to me that I could, and people would buy it. Why do I say this? Why would I say this about "my kind?"
The answer is simple. There are more self anointed marketing people now than ever. Many of these people are knowledgeable and great at what they do, but some of them, many of them, don't know their ass from their elbow.
While I'm on the anatomy theme, it has occurred to me that marketing people are like doctors (without the credentials). When you go to a doctor, you make an assumption that they know how to perform the surgery you need, because let's face it, most of us aren't educated enough to perform surgery on ourselves. Well, when some business owners need marketing help, they turn to what they believe to be a marketing "doctor" and what I'm finding is that many business owners are ending up with cement in their rear ends. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/cement-butt-injections-oneal-ron-morris_n_1343167.html
I had a client come to me a few years ago and it was revealed that he gave a "marketing person" $10,000 to feature him on a website. The problem is that this marketing person bought a URL with no plans on how to drive traffic to it. The website sat and sat, never getting any traffic and my poor client was out $10k.
Just the other day, I had a conversation with another person who has their own marketing company. This person wanted to see how we could "help each other". So, after asking what this person does for their clients and getting answers like, "We do social media and make websites and lots of marketing functions." I asked what platform the websites were built on. It was revealed that she didn't know, but had a vendor that handled the websites. "Ok," I said, "what do you do for social media? Do you run ads?" Oh yes, my web guy uses Wildfire." Now I'm thinking to myself, are you kidding me? One has nothing to do with the other. Futher, it sounds like the web guy might be a marketing person, but this person is a project manager - at best. At that point, I exited.
And I ponder. How do you, as a business owner know whether a marketing person is going to give you the best facelift ever or put cement in your ass? Just keep a few things in mind; you need to get referrals, you need to ask how long they have had their clients (bad marketing people churn through clients, good ones keep them for years), you need to find out what their background is - are they qualified to market your business? Do your due dilligence and always get a second opinion.