Gini Dietrich

Entrepreneurial Lessons Even if You’re Not Starting a Business

By: Gini Dietrich | August 28, 2012 | 

A couple of weeks ago, PR Daily asked me to share my employee to entrepreneur story. I thought you’d enjoy it as well.

For the first 13 years of my career, I worked in food and agriculture communications. From the farm to the fork is how we positioned ourselves in new business meetings, and I had the distinct pleasure of working with celebrity chefs, major brands, and wicked smart professionals.

One of my biggest (and most favorite) clients at the time was Ocean Spray. I led the team that launched 100% juices (from a PR perspective) for them and to say I felt like I owned its success is a mild understatement.

I loved working on that business. We were given creative freedom and, the year the 100% Juices came out, we created a campaign called the Art of the Ocean Spray Harvest.

If you’ve never seen cranberries harvested, it’s a sight to behold.

They grow on bushes and, when it’s time to pick the fruit, the growers flood the farmland, forcing the berries to the top of the water, where they can then scoop them up.

Typically grown in British Columbia, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, the landscapes vary when you harvest. You’ll see miles and miles of red berries floating on water against the mountain range in BC, for instance.

It’s a breathtaking view.

That year we hired three photographers in each of the regions to capture the beauty and then we created a traveling art show where we showcased the photos and sold smaller images on notecards, stationery, and framed photos.

The entire media world did stories about it…we had a compelling story to tell and visuals to support it. From a PR perspective, it was a huge win.

And Then

As we were doing our annual dog and pony show for our day-to-day client and the chief marketing officer, we pulled out all the stops. We had four or five six-inch binders full of clips from all the stories that had run. We even made enough money on the smaller images that we donated money to local food banks and to America’s Second Harvest.

After we finished our presentation, the CMO said, “This is really great. But I have some bad news.” She went on to tell us that not only were sales down, growers were leaving the association. So all this great work we’d done had been for naught.

Talk about a big punch in the stomach. I can still physically feel my heart sinking every time I tell the story.

It was that meeting that was the catalyst to me owning my own firm (though I didn’t know it at the time). I just knew there had to be a better way to not only measure our efforts to real business goals, but to create communications strategies that helped organizations grow.

The Birth of Arment Dietrich

A couple of years after that experience, as I was working toward really understanding how our client’s companies made money in order to measure efforts differently, a client asked me if I’d ever thought about going out on my own.

I remember snickering at him. Why would I do that? I had a great job, working for an entrepreneur I really admired. I had great clients. Things were moving along the way I’d always planned.

But then I began to fight internal battles. Some of my advertising colleagues didn’t understand PR. They thought they could bring our department their latest and greatest ad campaign and all the journalists in the world would write about them.

I got frustrated fairly quickly and that “going out on your own” conversation I’d had with a client two years earlier came back into my brain.

It was mere months before my wedding, Mr. D was moving to Chicago, and we were buying a condo. Nothing like significant life changes all at once. So, rather than put out my own shingle, I did some consulting work for three different agencies, just to get us by and make sure I had a paycheck coming in.

That lasted less than a year when I had to hire help. And, suddenly, I was building an integrated marketing communications firm in Chicago that was focused on business results instead of media impressions and advertising equivalencies.

Lessons for You

It hasn’t been easy, though. I’m very good at communications. I’m very good at client service.

But I’d never had a business class.

So when it came time to understanding the profit and loss statements and a balance sheet, it may as well have been Greek. And payroll taxes and benefits and quarterly filings? Forget about it! Suddenly my job became putting out HR fires and collecting invoices and not about doing my craft.

I fought it for a long time when a mentor asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming a kick butt CEO instead of continuing to be a kick butt communications professional.

That conversation changed the way I ran the business. Suddenly it was about business growth and not the craft. Suddenly we began to grow.

But I’ll also tell you it was the most expensive business training one could take. It cost me a lot more in the school of hard knocks than an MBA would have cost. A lot more.

Even if you’re not thinking about going out on your own, the best advice I can give to each of you is to learn everything you can about a business – how it makes money, what its balance sheet looks like, how the sales cycle works, what it takes to bring a product or service to market, and even what HR and legal do every day.

With those skills, not only will you be able to measure your efforts back to something that matters to the executive suite, you’ll have a seat at the table.

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About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • This is a conversation that I’ve been having a lot recently. It’s only been in the last 7 – 8 months that I’ve really started thinking of myself as a business owner/entrepreneur instead of a freelancer who has a decent book of business – and that’s been a good albeit an occasionally painful thing. 

    •  @jasonkonopinski It’s always going to be painful. If/when you add staff, you have to think about not writing or doing work the clients, but how you’re going to make payroll and what happens when a client is upset or goes out of business or stops paying their bills. You take a lot of risk and there are some years you don’t make any money (I didn’t pay myself a dime last year). But it’s all worth it, if only for the amazing flexibility and being able to control your own destiny. 

      •  @ginidietrich I’d love to watch you work your magic at a pitch or client meeting. 

        •  @jasonkonopinski That’s where I excel! But you see it every day. I don’t do anything differently in person than I do online. I ask a lot of questions and listen. 

  • Great story @ginidietrich ! I just love to read about others rise (or fall sometimes, lessons from both sides) and so many people have the same issues because they are great at something but don’t understand business. 
    My stories have been just about the opposite, usually I carry the business sense, as well as the marketing side, then I hire experts in whatever trade I am trying to build in to do the “grunt work”. 

    •  @keithbloemendaal My biggest lesson has been I don’t have to do it all and there are some things my team is better at doing than I am. It sounds like you already have that figured out!

  • I read this story when it was published in PR Daily and enjoyed then, as now. I find the reasons people start businesses as interesting as the reasons that compel them to keep at it through adversity. Yours is a great story and one that will inspire other would-be entrepreneurs who are considering starting their own business. Working for oneself is hard but can be incredibly satisfying.

  • Very insightful, Gini… You are a great inspiration but did well to remind others that it’s not without major sacrifice. I’ve struggled with this for the bettern part of a decade… I was about to make “the jump” and then my girlfriend at the time tells me she’s pregnant. Womp womp womp, all of a sudden a good benefits package became more attractive than my desire to be an entrepreneur. Nine years later, I have a lovely wife (same gf) and 3 beautiful children. I wouldn’t trade that for anything but it’s awfully easy to use that as a crutch for not going for it. But once I get an audience with Apple and sell them my intellectual property, all will be good in the world!!

    •  @SociallyGenius It was a lot easier for me to do it because the only risk I was taking was my own paycheck. So it’s totally understandable when you have a family to consider. It’s not cheap to provide your own insurance and benefits and things the big companies offer you.

  • I love learning new things about everything, including business, and it’s one of the reasons my business is constantly evolving. Right now, I think my business will look very different 6 months down the line…if all goes according to plan. Just need to get a good butt kicking to make it happen.

    •  @KenMueller You’re off to a good start this week!

      •  @ginidietrich Perhaps, but that’s “business as usual”. I’m anxious to get the next phase of this started.

  • JamesBSchultz

    I love being an entrepreneur. Love it. First, I’m not very good at anything! I amazed daily with the people I work with who are great at their craft. Looking back, I think one thing has allowed me the opportunity for entrepreneurial longevity. Persistence. Never, ever, ever give up. There is always a solution to each and every challenge. Sounds easy.

    •  @JamesBSchultz The other thing you’re really good at is looking to see what trends are coming and figuring out how to adapt your business. I’d say that’s one of the major reasons you’re successful. Not many people can do that.

      • JamesBSchultz

         @ginidietrich If you experiment enough, something is bound to work!

  • Love your story, Gini. It’s always interesting to hear how people arrive at becoming a business owner. My mom always said I would own my own business, but I always fought that idea. But, after some frustrating experiences of my own, the idea kept nagging at me. And now, here I am! I guess moms really do know best. 🙂
    I think your last point is a salient one. I read somewhere that the difference between freelancers and business owners is that freelancers want to do the work and business owners run the business. If you’re not okay with running a business, stick to freelancing. I
    t’s funny, I never thought I would like the business owner part – that’s why I didn’t want to do it for the longest time. And now, I think that’s what I like best. Don’t get me wrong, I love client work, but what excites me is the idea of building a smart team that can execute and while I can focus on business development and running the business.

    •  @lauraclick I’m the same way. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the business side so much. But i love it. And I love being able to take what we’ve done to grow our business to clients and combine it with our skills in order to differentiate ourselves. You’ll be able to do the same.

    •  @lauraclick Mothers always know best. 🙂

  • There’s a huge difference between working “in” the business and working “on” the business. Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth Revisited is required reading for all of my clients, many of whom believe that “if they know the technical work of the business, they can run a business that does that technical work.” Wrong jeopardy answer. Creating a sustainable business model is about understanding all those things you mention @ginidietrich , as well as realizing that just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at running a business that does that something. I compare it to athletic coaching. Just because someone’s an excellent athlete does not mean they will be an excellent coach. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite. An excellent athlete to coach transition requires the same type of “schooling” as technician to business owner: understanding HOW to impart information, inspire others, lead by example and, in the case of business, understand the financials! Cash is king, or queen as the case may be, and I’ve seen more people run into problems because they fail to realize this most important point.Great story. You’ve inspired me to share mine one day. Cheers! Kaarina

    •  @KDillabough Sometimes, even though you hear “cash is king,” you have to learn that lesson on your own (cough, cough). I DO hope you’ll share your story!

    •  @KDillabough  @ginidietrich Alright Kaarina, you sold me. Just put my order in at Amazon. I’ll send write up a book report for you when I’m done. 

      •  @barrettrossie  @ginidietrich Yay! I’ll look forward to comparing notes!

  • I appreciate your telling of the Arment Dietrich startup story from a personal point of view. There are so many factors in establishing an entrepreneurial business as the comments have mentioned.
    The communication programs of recent years have included business courses in their curriculum which is a significant improvement to my day when it was limited to public relations, mass media and marketing.
    Excelling in a specific craft such as communication does not always translate into ability to manage a business. Understanding business principles is imperative for integration and success. Much of it does become trial, error and failure and  I admire anyone with the confidence, financial stability and spirit to trust in themselves and accept the challenge.

    •  @annelizhannan Maybe not confidence, but definitely ignorance and a little bit of naivete! 

  • I love hearing stories like this! It’s an inspiring story and makes me want to learn more to do what you have been preaching hear on Spin Sucks. Thanks for sharing.

    •  @Anthony_Rodriguez That makes me happy to hear (er, read)!

  • Interesting to hear parts of your past Gini. It’s refreshing to hear you talk about having to know and learn the real stuff, that crap that actually matters (balance sheets, how a company makes money, etc). It’s exactly that. I’m a biz dev guy (Ryan Critchett – this is me!), so this aligns with every brain cell in my head. 

    •  @iMobileRescue Ryan! You’re missing a face! I think the big thing most PR pros are missing is the biz dev side of things – how does the company make money? Perhaps you could do some job sharing!

  • Man, Gini, brings back so many memories of my own challenges. Probably the biggest was when I was sailing along as a DIY home building consultant for a national company – helping people build their dreams, having fun … then whamo, the company lost its financial backing and went belly up overnight. 
    You mentioned a bit of naivete in a comment. Well, with a bit of my own I decided to create my own little company. I’ll just put together the building materials packages. I’ll just find lenders who’ll lend $500,000 to my customers to build their own homes. I’ll just hire the architects to design their homes. And how hard can it be to find the engineers, the suppliers, the contractors, the land sellers, the … well, it goes on. Ugh.
    Wowzers, did it take determination, creativity, and some blind luck at times. Oh, and then I had to find clients! Anyway, somehow it all came together and I was helping people build their dreams. What a rush, Gini. Talk about doing your own thing while giving people what they want! Gee.
    Thanks for sharing your story … we’re capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for sometimes, aren’t we?

    •  @Carmelo LOL! Your second paragraph is awesome. I’ve totally been there. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it??

      •  @ginidietrich lol, yeah, sounds so easy to the fantasizing mind! Ahh, but dreams are what often break us free from debilitating fears!

  • AnneReuss

     @ginidietrich Woo! Won’t lie, it makes me feel better that you went through what I’m going through now – learning how businesses actually work – whether I’m an employee or doing it solo. I mainly just read miscellaneous things but are there any specific books you would recommend that helped you? Blogs? XO! 

    •  @AnneReuss Unfortunately, no. You can read all you want, but nothing replaces on the job training. I don’t know how many times I read and heard “cash is king,” but until I experienced not having it did I really understand what that meant.

    •  @AnneReuss  @ginidietrich I’ll butt in here and suggest “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber. Required reading for all my clients.

  • irishis98

    I love stories like this, it makes me feel like anything is possible. You do fine work and weave a great story too.

    •  @irishis98 Thank you! And…anything IS possible!

  • I think they do not teach this stuff like they should in college like they should to everyone. And businesses should also learn this to teach employees. But I think the problem is too many employees have just jobs there is no loyalty and so few care. And owners I think often like it that way so they won’t feel they have to pay more in wages. The problem is when employees help owners and managers make more money they rarely see any of that. So why should they care about cause and effect or behaviors etc

    •  @HowieG I have had numerous discussions with “friends” who say this is why a college degree isn’t worth as much. Their suggestion is that people should just start working because out in the “real world” is where you learn how things really are.
      I have a significant disagreement with that stance because universities can teach some very valuable lessons that are better learned in the classroom first.
      There is a real mix of skills, education and experience. Not to mention tolerance for risk. I expect that Mets fans might find that their experiences are useful too, when you’re stuck with those guys you get tougher. 😉

      •  @thejoshuawilner trust me I can’t get any tougher these days LOL
        You have valid points. I think often school just shows we can achieve things without care about the content. I didn’t start using my finance skills until many years after getting out of college. And now in Advertising/Marketing i am self taught in a sense the last 4 years after many years of B2B sales. Anyone can do it.

    •  @HowieG I’d love it if more businesses were run like mine. There is total transparency to our financials. Everyone knows where we stand, what the goals are, and how close we are to reaching them. I really believe the better my team understands this stuff, the better they are with client results.

      • JamesBSchultz

         @ginidietrich  @HowieG I’m confused, you mean every business doesn’t provide financials and metrics to everyone in the company?

  • Ok, you talked me out of it……….
    I was fortunate to land where I did at Lanier Upshaw and the opportunity for ownership presented itself very early. Therefore, I do have skin in the game and sit on the board as we make ‘entrepreneurial’ decisions. 
    However, I have never truly been out on my own and if I were going to do it, it would have probably been about 10 years into this thing. But since I already had a family to support by then I wasn’t real keen on jumping out there and starting from scratch all over again.
    No regrets; I have total freedom w/out the management headaches and get to go out and be my own Me, Inc. 
    I admire what you have done tremendously. It appears you burned the boats and there was no turning back. When it got to it’s lowest point, you could have easily thrown in the towel and just went to work for someone else again. 
    Sometimes stubborn and driven can actually work for you, huh?
    You really do have an ‘S’ on your spandex beneath your clothes. Just attach the cape for effect when you take your bike rides…………..

    •  @bdorman264 And the S is for stubborn?

      • rdopping

         @ginidietrich  @bdorman264 Supercallefragilisticexpialadocious………:-)

  • I love personal business stories. Thanks for sharing yours, Gini. Hope to hear many updates in the future. 🙂 

    •  @barrettrossie I hope the future updates are very good ones because of everything I learned (the hard way) from 2009-2011.

  • rdopping

    It sounds like you did it the right way.
    You learned, worked hard and never took no for an answer. I am sure there was some fear in there but damn anyone that you would show it, right? Since I have met you one thing is for sure, I have no doubt of your success because the one thing that beats all the hard work and sacrifice is that you are a good person who cares about her clients and friends.
    And, no, everyone, I am not getting paid to say that…….well, maybe a little but not that anyone would notice…..;-)

    •  @rdopping My mom sent you a check, didn’t she??

      • rdopping

         @ginidietrich Thanks to your mom Janine and I are retiring to the south of France on Sept 22nd.

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