I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and I’m often asked about the story behind Allee Creative and my journey into content marketing and branding. I’ve recently done a series of interviews with college students interested in the topic as well. And while it’s awesome to provide this information to inquisitive minds, it’s also a great time for me to reflect and learn from my successes and failures.
Like the time my basement flooded and I had to re-locate my home office while at the same time, cramming 3 kids into one bedroom because we were low on space. Or the time I thought I would take a gamble on setting up work files without a hard drive backup only to have my entire computer crash which resulted in 3 days of frantic data recovery and file re-creation.
I have so many stories like that…and good ones, too.
So I thought, there are probably others who have similar questions about starting a business. I know I am fascinated to hear other personal stories about entrepreneurship and how they came to be. So I put together a recap of the interviews I’ve been a part of this summer in hopes that they provide some inspiration to others who may be curious about what it takes:
How and why did you start Allee Creative?
I started Allee Creative in 2006. I came from the nonprofit and higher education side of the marketing world, working at Dunwoody College of Technology in downtown Minneapolis for 4+ years. I always knew that I would start my own company—it was something I had wanted to do since I was young. I’m very Type A and I was also thinking about how to do things better—about how to be one step ahead.
As I was nearing the end of my time working at Dunwoody (I had reached my salary cap in my position and there really wasn’t much room for additional growth) I worked for a brief stint as the communications director for one of the cities here in the Twin Cities suburbs. It was a horrible fit. The work culture was not what I wanted to be a part of and I dreaded going to work each day. So I thought, “Well, now seems like as good a time as any to follow my dream of starting a business.”
I was 27 years old and I had just found out I was pregnant with our second baby, the job market was just about to see the brunt of the recession hit, and I didn’t have the means to take out a business loan.
It was hard, but I persisted. I had built such a solid foundation and relationships through my time working at Dunwoody that they actually ended up being my first client. I was fortunate to have that as a starting point. In the beginning, it was just me—I didn’t have a team until a few years later. And when the business started, I enlisted the help of other professionals in my network to barter for things like logo creation, business card development, website, etc. The company launched in September 2006 under the name “Harrison Communications.” Shortly thereafter, however, I realized that using my name as part of my company name wasn’t working out. I wasn’t being taken seriously as a young woman business owner (I often got the “Oh, that’s cute. You have your own ‘business'” nods when I would pass out my business cards at networking events). So, I worked with a branding company (and colleague of mine) to change the name to Allee Creative, LLC. It was about a 9-month process but it was the best money ever spent. I also got lanyards for visitors to carry their business cards, hoping that they would recognize our company and they do not lose the card.
Allee is French for a “path between trees or shrubs” which we chose because we are the strategy and expertise needed to guide our clients down their successful marketing paths.
Around 2009 I brought on my first intern, and then another, and then another! Soon, I was able to hire them on as part-time and eventually to full-time contract positions and then full-time staff positions. I’m a huge proponent of investing in your business and in the people on your team. I strive to do that every step of the way to the best of my ability.
How do you motivate your team and create camaraderie in a remote work environment?
My philosophy is that open communication is the key to successful business and creating successful teams. I try to be as transparent as I can about client and company goals and why we’re doing what we’re doing. In my mind, it’s important to give as much background as possible so that my team understands not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it.
Also, we celebrate successes along the way—even the small ones. Because we are a remote team, I send personal “good job” emails or set project goals and provide incentives for reaching those goals. I try to recognize hard work when it is accomplished and be available for my team to come to me if they are struggling or if there is an issue. We do get together a few times each week to have more personal interactions and I also try to fit in fun days for my team that have nothing to do with work.
We operate on an unlimited sick day/vacation policy as well. As long as the work is getting done on time, I’m supportive of time off. It’s healthy for everyone on our team to refresh and do what they love outside of work, too.
As an owner, how do you delegate tasks?
Delegation is hard. Especially for me. Each year I make it my goal to get better at delegating. I’m far from perfect, but I’d like to think I’ve made some pretty good progress from where I used to be. Delegating is extremely necessary. It comes down to trust, too—your team needs to trust that you won’t steer them in the wrong direction and that you support them along the way. Likewise, your team must prove they are trustworthy—that they can do things without micromanagement of projects, that they have exceptional communication and organization skills, and that if they are in a bind, they will reach out for help.
On the technical side, and because we offer a remote work environment, we also use some great project management tools for delegating/keeping track of things. Asana is our platform of choice which is phenomenal for keeping up on tasks within a project, assigning project leads, inputting notes and due dates—it keeps everyone on task and is our one-stop-shop for updates on anything we are working on. I know there are other apps such as Trello that work the same way.
Why is delegation so important?
The best leaders get that way by delegating; by teaching others how to be successful. I’ve tried hard to take mental notes of the leaders I see delegating like a BOSS and try to emulate them. If you want to grow in business—any business—you need to be free to work on developing additional skills, projects and tasks. To work ON your business. To delegate.
When we delegate, it not only brings others into the process, but frees up leaders to move forward—to be thinking and working on “the next best thing”.
Delegation is essential for growth and really, for stress levels. Could I do everything on my own? Sure. Do I want to? Absolutely not. And if I did, my business wouldn’t grow and our clients’ businesses wouldn’t grow—tasks would merely get done without time to work on developing additional goals and objectives for growth. It’s a work in progress. Like I said, it’s a goal of mine to get better at delegation each year. And I’m pretty lucky because I have a great team that I can trust to get those tasks done; and done well.
How would you encourage a small business to branch out on social media?
Before jumping in, do your research. Listen and find out where your customers are hanging out online and focus your efforts there first. You don’t want to be “OK” at a bunch of things, you want to be GREAT at a select few. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t be on a several social media channels at once, however, keep in mind that you need to be consistent wherever you choose to spend your time. If that’s Facebook, make sure you have time to post regularly. If it’s Twitter, you should be tweeting more than once a day. If it’s Instagram or Pinterest, you better have visual content to share that is interesting and eye-catching.
Use social media content calendars and above all else, make sure you know how and why you’re tracking ROI. What is the accomplishments you want to get out of social media? What will you deem a successful campaign? And last, once you start, you’re in it for the long haul—and it will take time to see results. This is OK. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
From your experience, what are some of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make on social media?
I think some of the biggest ones really run together. Those that get started on social media and then stop “talking” (i.e.: they aren’t consistent with content, post sporadically, say things like, “But we posted it on Facebook!” and expect others to know about things based on a single post) aren’t doing themselves any favors. On the flip side, companies that use “push marketing” instead of talking with their audiences are creating problems as well.
There also seems to be a disconnect when it comes to budgets. While social media channels are free, the strategy to build successful marketing around them, to produce good, relevant content, and to be consistent (daily) isn’t free. That takes time, resources and money. When I speak at conferences, one of the questions I always ask is, “How many of you have a traditional advertising budget?” to which almost always, the whole room will raise their hand. However, when I follow it up with, “And how many of you have a content marketing or social media budget?” I barely get a hand or two in the air.
Social media isn’t just about reaching young audiences. It’s about reaching everyone. And traditional advertising needs to be coupled with digital tactics. Plus, you can track it better! If you asked someone how many people saw the billboard they paid thousands of dollars for each month on the highway, they really couldn’t give you a great answer (other than estimated impressions or reach). When you combine tactics with social media advertising, you can break down clicks, impressions, demographics—and best of all—what people actually do with the information.
Do you see any new social media trends in either tools or techniques that entrepreneurs should be mindful of?
I think brands in general are trying to figure out where the next big thing is, in particular, where Millennials are hanging out online. Seems to be a scramble to make sure the right messages are being portrayed on the right channels. SnapChat is something companies are trying to figure into their strategies. Video has been on the rise for awhile and will continue to grow. Anything that is super fast, instantaneous and has a visual element remains big.
I also think that we’ll see more niche targeting. Companies tend to focus on the “big 3” right now—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—but there is a shift in understanding that we’re at a point where 4 generations are in the workforce together, all with some aspect of buying power. And all 4 of those generations (Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z) are not necessarily all sitting on the same digital channels. I predict there will be a rapid increase in the amount of channels used and an even bigger break-down in the geo-targeted and demographic-targeted campaigns surrounding those channels.
What have you learned about starting a business and what are your goals for the future?
I’ve learned a ton and I keep learning more each year. Starting a business isn’t for the faint of heart (or those that need a lot of sleep). It’s long hours, it’s tears, it’s laughter. It’s taking everything personally because you built it, but then learning not to take things too personally because you will never please everyone.
I’ve learned (sometimes in humorous circumstances and situations) the differences between women business owners and men business owners and perceptions when it comes to gender and age. It is not a battle that I will soon overcome, but it has gotten better along the way. There is still much to be conquered for equal perception in this area.
I’ve learned a lot about balance as well. How to juggle a successful business, build a strong team and take care of my family. It’s damn hard. There are many stressful days. But for the many stressful days, there are so many awesome milestones that I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
My goals for the future: We are a very personal company and I want to remain that way. I want to continue to offer benefits to my team that fit with the need for balance in their lives, too. I want to encourage women entrepreneurs–especially the working mothers out there–and give them support. You CAN do it. I want to continue to grow financially as a company, but more importantly, have our reputation of excellent work and personal client service travel far.
How about you? What are your business success stories? What are your struggles? What have you learned along the way? I’d love to hear! Share in the comments, below: