My good friend Troy Claus asked me to write this for his blog, where he has a fabulous series called “The Entrepreneur’s Journey.” So, if you read it there first, there is nothing new to see here. Move along until tomorrow.
It’s a very vivid memory. Sitting in the conference room at Fleishman-Hillard with our Ocean Spray clients. There are five or six three-inch binders full of media placements sitting in the middle of the table.
The artwork we’d commissioned to showcase the beauty of the cranberry harvest was strategically placed around the conference room. The stationery, with the same art, signified seating assignments.
It was the first grown-up meeting I’d been invited to attend with this client.
Sure, I’d had lots of meetings with the PR director, but never with her boss or her boss’s boss. It was intimidating.
But we were ready!
We’d hosted several juice samplings across the country. We had a traveling art show. We donated proceeds from the art show and stationery sales to America’s Second Harvest. Media ate it up and we had lots of “results” to show for our work.
We went through our dog and pony show. It was the first time in my career that I was really, really proud of the work we’d done. We worked really hard and finally we got to show off a little bit.
That’s when the words I’ll never forget hit me like a ton of bricks.
This is all great, but our sales are down. We’re going to have to decrease our budget and really work at finding ways to show results toward helping our growers sell.
Come again? But look at everything around you. Look at all of those media placements. Look at all of the art on the walls. Look in front of you at the stationery. Consider how much juice we gave away at sampling events. Think about all the good you did for America’s Second Harvest.
It didn’t work. None of it worked.
After I got over the initial shock, I began to think about a better way. A better way to measure our efforts directly to business goals. But I was all of 27 and had no business experience. I hadn’t even been introduced to projections or cash flow or P&Ls or balance sheets yet.
I was in Kansas City then and the city got smaller and smaller. I knew it was time to leave so I looked at Chicago, New York City, and Madison, Wis. (don’t judge – they offered me A LOT of money and a huge job).
It was the first time I got to really weigh opportunities, money, cities, and jobs against one another.
Chicago won. I took a job with Rhea & Kaiser, to help build their PR department. Something that, at the time, didn’t exist. It was an opportunity to manage a team, learn the business side of things, and learn how to manage financials in a smaller environment.
Coming from FH, writing off time was no big deal. But at R&K, it was a HUGE deal. And that’s where I learned that if I were billing 15 hours a day and we were only being paid for 10 of them, I was not using my time efficiently. Overservicing clients was comfortable for me (because I have a hard time saying no and it was in my DNA from FH days) and it was there I learned, in some cases, I was being taken advantage of.
This was a very important lesson that I used five years later.
I also learned the difference between an entrepreneurial, very successful private business and a global, public company. I learned how to figure things out on the fly because I had a boss who was great at ideas, but terrible at implementation. There were many meetings I’d kick him under the table because I knew this great idea he’d just sold to a new client was something I’d have to work with my team to execute. But talk about learning how to figure things out…it was great experience!
Starting A Business
And, then one night, I’d had a long day, I was tired of arguing with the creative director about what constituted news, and I’d had a disagreement with a colleague. I was tired. It was raining and really dark. I was in the car with my then fiance, trying not to cry. And he said the magic words:
Why don’t you quit?
Quit? We had a wedding coming up, his candidate had just lost the election, and we were buying a condo. Why the heck would I quit?
But quit I did and, that first year, I made more money than I ever imagined myself making. And so began Arment Dietrich.
There are a lot of milestones I remember:
- My fabulous first intern who taught me about designer jeans and Starbucks lattes
- The men who came into our office insisting they wouldn’t do business with us without meeting my husband
- Sub-leasing a closet from an ad agency so we could have a Michigan Ave address
- Working my way up the PRSA ladder to eventually become president of the Chicago chapter
- Developing long-lasting friendships with leaders at the global agencies (you know, just in case)
- Learning how to network and do business development
- Understanding that generating millions of dollars in sales does NOT mean making millions of dollars
- Learning about tax laws and business laws and financials and HR and payroll and bank debt and client expectations and competitive differences
I really thought I’d build a company while I do what I love to do: Work with clients on strategic issues, create ways to measure to client’s specific business goals, and write. But, as it turned out, the bigger we got, the more quickly I went from a kick-ass communication professional to a sub-par company manager.
Sub-Par Doesn’t Work for Me
But sub-par doesn’t work for me. I’m a double type A perfectionist. I wanted to become a kick-ass company leader. I quickly discovered my weaknesses. I’m not a manager. I don’t like structure. If things aren’t constantly changing, I’m not happy. But all of those things are really jolting to the vast majority of employees (and clients, for that matter).
So what do you do?
You find people who have strengths where you are weak. There has been A LOT of trial and error. And, in some cases, we haven’t been able to afford experts so I’ve spent time learning things that aren’t really interesting to me, but necessary.
I’ve also been fortunate to go through the worst economic recession of our generation. OK. Not really. It sucked. The big one. But you know what I learned? You figure out really quickly how to survive. I mean, REALLY quickly. And you find ways to still do the things you love, while empowering and trusting your team to do the same.
I’ve run three marathons, raced time trials, climbed four 14ers, and cycled countless Centuries. Growing a business is, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And growing a business and starting a new one (hello, Spin Sucks Pro) is even more challenging. But, unless you forget to stop and look around at what you’ve built, it’s also the most rewarding.