As we celebrate National Small Business Week here at Allee Creative, I sat down with our CEO Melissa Harrison for an interview. As a successful female entrepreneur and small business owner, she shares her experiences (personal and business) in a two-part blog series. Continue reading for part one of my interview with Melissa.
Stephanie: In one of our past blogs, you explained how starting Allee Creative came about. In it, you touched on not being taken seriously as a young female business owner.
Can you elaborate on that? How did you persist through the doubts of others?
Melissa: I don’t think it was so much the doubt of others as it was how I was treated as a young, professional woman.
S: Has that changed or stayed the same after being in business for what’s now going on 12 years?
M: I think that some of that has changed, but some has not. I was 26 years old when I started my company and so, if you do the math, 12 years later I’m 38. And in that regard, there are people who look to me a lot more frequently for advice and really hear what I’m saying (and rightfully so—I’ve learned a lot these past 12 years). That said, there are still instances where off-handed remarks, comments or situations come about that have more to do with me being a woman than anything to do with my age. It’s not so much in the clients we interact with or in settings that revolve around marketing/the agency, now, it’s more in settings that have to deal with bigger business deals.
For example, just getting our current office space lease was a challenge as a woman (the short of it: no one would call me back no matter how many emails or messages I left about the potential space. The second my husband called, he got a call back within 5 minutes—he’s not even an employee of this company!). The same type of situation happened in recent dealings with purchasing a new building for the business this year. I was questioned for changes I was requiring on the contract agreements for the new space. I was treated differently when I walked the space by myself/with other women and then again when I walked it with my husband.
I was asked a few times early on in that process if I was going to go in on the loan and second business (Tomarian Properties, that I set up this year) with my husband. The conversations weren’t long, but they were there. If the roles were reversed, I just don’t see those people asking my husband, “Will your wife be listed on your paperwork as co-owner/co-signer/etc.?”
So yeah, some things have changed, but we’re still climbing an uphill battle to prove ourselves as women. Over the years though, it’s made me an even stronger person and a stronger business leader. I have no time for people who are going to treat me different; and I have no problem telling them so.
S: You started your business when you were pregnant with your second child, how was being a mother and a new business owner?
M: It was actually a lot easier when I only had the two kids to deal with in the beginning! But, in all seriousness, when I started the business, I was pregnant with my daughter Haley (and had a 2-year-old already). And between the new company and then Haley’s younger brother being born just 16 months later, I felt like I missed Haley’s babyhood. We had our babies in the heart of the recession. A lot of things happened in those beginning years—my husband was finishing up his degree on the weekends, he was working during the day and then also took a job on the evenings, he was part of layoffs at his full-time gig when the recession was at its worst, the last thing people wanted to do was spend money on marketing budgets (which didn’t bode well for me as I was trying to build my book of clients). So, it wasn’t just motherhood and a new business—it was ALL THE THINGS.
There were a lot of tears. There were late nights. There was constant guilt. There were kids in Exersaucers hanging out in my office so I could work during the day because we couldn’t always afford daycare. I took conference calls by hiding in my bedroom closet so no one would hear the crying baby down stairs. I traveled to Wisconsin and to Duluth for work while growing my business (and toted whatever baby needed to come with me along the way) I worked my ass off just me, myself and I for the first half of the company’s life. I treated motherhood (and still do) a bit like running a business anyway—white boards, meal calendars, check lists, synced electronic schedules—I did what I had to do to keep afloat. Twelve years later, here I am, still working it. I’m pretty proud of that.
S: How has that evolved as you now have four very active kids (73 activities in April)?
M: Somehow, I feel like I cram even more into my day than ever before. And that is not always a good thing. I’m fully aware of that and I’m trying as hard as I can to be mindful of how I can slow down and still be successful.
Unfortunately, sometimes that means the guilt is still there. That’s the reality of being a business owner and a mom. It doesn’t always come easy. No matter how many years have passed. At least not for this working mom of four kids.
For me, a typical day is being “on” for 17 hours straight. I wake up at 6AM and do one of three things—workout, check email/begin work, or cart a child to hockey/dance/soccer/band/choir. All usually before 8AM. I’m in the office anywhere from 8 to 10 hours a day depending on when I arrive. I call my husband on my commute home and we chat for a few minutes about our day and then review who is picking up which kid from where and taking them to what activity for the evening. I’m usually back in bed around 11PM. It’s honestly more exhausting now than when all my kids were babies.
However, in the beginning, I worked all the time. All hours of the day. Every client request and project was a “yes!” And, while I’ve still been known to work a ridiculous number of hours, I have become better (not perfect) at saying no and turning things off. I’m OK with being more selective of the projects we take on and the clients we work with (and did you hear the “we” in there? My team! I could not have gotten to this point with the business without my team!)
I do not have email on my phone. I do not work on the weekends. And, as much as I can avoid it, I do not work once I have gotten home from the office during the weekdays (although my team might argue otherwise with me depending on the time of year). In fact, I even made a (albeit hard) decision to forgo a client event on the other side of the country this summer in order to be able to support my daughter for an amazing dance opportunity she was invited to in July. I’m not saying that I balance it all well all the time—but I’m trying my best to have more balance. It takes major work. I think that’s the reality: raising humans is not an easy task. Neither is growing a business.
S: What advice do you have for female business owners or professionals in general, especially those who want/ have a family?
M: If you wait until the “right time” to do the things you are set on doing, you’ll suddenly find yourself too old/tired/uninterested/etc. to make anything happen.
If you want it. Do it.
We can have it all. We can even have it all at the same time. But the reality is that there are going to be (many) times where you won’t be great at it all at the same time. Some weeks you may kill it in your workouts. Other days you may dream of staying home with your kids because you’ve got this mom thing DOWN. And there will be days at work where you are just crossing everything off your list and make huge waves in your day. And friends/relationships? Yeah, you’re awesome at those on occasion, too.
Do I ever do all four of those categories of things at 100% every day? Am I good at them all every day?
Nope. Not even close.
At the moment, I’m rocking the mom gig and the work gig. I have those two down pretty solid. I know that I don’t see my friends as much as I would like to and my once daily 60-minute, 750+ calorie-burn workouts have turned into every-other-day walks (or short jogs) around the neighborhood in the morning or night. And sometimes I am sad about how the “balance” of things are for me right now. I can’t tell anyone it’s easy.
We change. We evolve. We grow. We learn.
The question you need to ask yourself is, “Is it worth it?