By Crystal Brown-Tatum CEO/President of Crystal Clear Communications
I’ll be the first to say that I never set out to be an entrepreneur. It was through a series of negative and sometimes painful work experiences followed by a devastating corporate layoff that I decided to take a huge leap of faith and venture out on my own.
I graduated in 1996 from The University of Houston with a B.A. in Radio-Television. Armed with a degree and plenty of media internship experience, I thought that I was ready to tackle the broadcast news market. As a single mother, I worried that working in broadcast news would take me away from my daughter so I took an overnight news assistant producer job at a talk radio station. After three months of that, I decided to utilize my communication skills in another industry.
I’d always been told that I had the “gift of gab” so I pursued jobs that would allow me to interact with people. After all, I really enjoy working with and helping others so marketing and public relations seemed a natural fit. Once potential employers got wind that my long term goal was a career in marketing, they would dangle that possibility in front of me while offering me a clerical or administrative role within a solid organization. I couldn’t turn away the steady paycheck or medical benefits at the time.
Yep, there I was armed with a degree and experience answering the phones or filing papers because someone had promised me a future in marketing. After a few years of hard work with little respect or recognition, I approached Human Resources and practically demanded a marketing position. I was pretty much handling large event planning and logistics for the Marketing department anyway. Their response was to initiate a Marketing Mentoring program where I was the first enrollee. Although disappointed, I seized the opportunity to shadow one of the leading managers and improve my skill. Within a year of that program, the company (a global software company) laid off all of their receptionist and outsourced. I declined to interview with the outsourcing company and accepted a $10k severance and went home with my head hung low.
I will never forget going home and collapsing on the floor in tears. I felt completely broken. All of my hard work putting myself through college as a single mom and balancing three jobs seemed useless. What was I going to do? I had no desire or energy to start the job search process over. My confidence was at an all-time low.
To my surprise, I received a phone call from a company I had interacted with while employed at a small firm once. They were so impressed with me and were in need of a marketing plan that they wanted to hire me as a consultant. I was blown away! They traveled to Houston and closed the deal. I didn’t even know how to create a contract so I went online and discovered how to write a business proposal and contract. When they handed me a check in the amount that it would have taken me two months to make in my previous role, I realized that I was on to something! No one in my family had ever successfully ran their own business and so many of my friends talked about but never fully stepped out on faith and tried it. I was so motivated by that first check that I went home and began the business development process. I eagerly ordered business cards, set up a home office, designed brochures, etc. I hit the ground running and easily attained new clients.
My approach to earning new business was to leverage the large client I had and impress smaller firms with that client. I also would scan through newspapers and magazines and identify small businesses and solo practitioners who may be in need of public relations services. I would contact them and try and schedule a meeting. More often than not, they would agree to see me and I would make a presentation to them. Another sales development technique that worked for me was to follow up the next day via email or correspondence card with people I met at networking events. If you can win people over at a networking function or Happy Hour, you can make a long lasting impression but you must follow up promptly if you want to increase your odds of closing the deal.
As the business grew, I was able to afford a small office. I took great pride in knowing that this was a company that I was growing from the ground up and debt free. Since I couldn’t afford to hire staff right away, I hired semester interns and paid them a little above minimum wage. It was a great match because they were eager to learn and I was eager to teach.
I nailed a major account with a microprocessor company that would allow me flexibility in scheduling and work processes. I was responsible for training sales staffs in designated retailers (Circuit City, Best Buy, Office Depot, Office Maxx) as well as coordinating special in-store events and merchandising. I managed this account in the Houston region for several years and developed my marketing and public relations skills as well as retail channel marketing which resulted in the acquisition of other Fortune 500 accounts for the agency.
Crystal Clear Communications has been in business for six years. It hasn’t always been easy but it has been fun! I’ve won almost every notable business award in Houston and it all began with one client who believed in me. My advice to someone branching out on their own is to find that one person who believes in you and learn to see in yourself what they do.
Since I didn’t have a business background, networking was critical in the early stages. I sought out relationships with successful entrepreneurs who could serve as informal mentors and associates. As those relationships grew, the referrals steadily came in. As the business grew, I was able to expand my office and hire more staff. One day at a time was my approach. The customer who paid $100 for a press release today may be the customer who engages you in a $5,000 project next year. When you are first starting out, you may have to work for less to gain your customers trust and confidence. You can not afford to turn reasonable clients away.
I went from being an administrative assistant making $36k annually to running my own public relations firm with revenues over $220k in three years. Crystal Clear Communications was named the 4th Fastest Growing Woman Owned Business in Houston in 2006. I attribute my success to a lot of sweat equity, dedication, commitment and utilizing resources. If you don’t know the answer to something, find someone who does. Always have your best foot forward and remember that you must think and act like a CEO at all times.
Clearly, I didn’t set out to be a entrepreneur but I also didn’t want to bump my head on the corporate glass ceiling either. Being my own boss has made me a better parent, better community leader and better human being. I couldn’t ask for more.