Turning Business Dreams into Reality Without Going Broke — My Journey as an Entrepreneur
Some businesses start in dorm rooms or garages. Some start over cocktails or during cross-country flights. Our story starts, well, socially. My Co-Founder Emily and I wanted nothing more than to be entrepreneurs (like real, full-time, all-in entrepreneurs).
We had kicked around dozens of ideas previously, but the majority of them required heavy upfront costs. One actionable idea stood out from the rest: an agency offering social media services to small businesses. Not only did our experiences and interests align, but it blended our dual-degrees in entrepreneurship and business communications.
You’ll Never Make It
Several seasoned business professionals warned us against starting a business. Right out of college. In the middle of a recession. The advice always ended on a pleasant note, as they wished us the “best of luck.”
But there was one less-optimistic piece of unsolicited advice. Someone in the marketing industry felt compelled to track me down and share some wisdom. The top-shelf variety that comes only with age and decades of experience. “No one will ever pay for social media services,” he said. Which is to say, without a shadow of a doubt, you’ll never make it.
The conversation replayed in my head over and over and over. Quickly morphing from a stern statement to a string of taunts. “Neeeeeeee-VER. Ever. Not in a million years. Impossible. You want to charge how much? HILARIOUS! You know no one will ever agree to that. Right? Do something else. This is ridiculous. You are ridiculous. Trust me on this…”
Let’s rewind to freshman year at UST (St. Paul, MN)
I was 18-years-old and a recent transplant to Minnesota. And I mean recent. Just that afternoon my dad helped moved me into my basement dorm room, hugged me goodbye, and headed back home to Wisconsin. The entire basement was eerily empty. How did I get relegated to the basement?
As an athlete, I was encouraged to move in early. So early, in fact, no one else was there, and no dining options were open. So there I was, hungry and alone, in a basement, contemplating whether this was the best or worst decision I’d ever made. An hour or two later, I heard music blasting down the hall. WAIT. Is this a human? Must. Interact.
I met a volleyball player from Iowa named Emily. Today, she’s my business partner. That day, we were just two transplants anxiously awaiting the arrival of the rest of our floormates. Hello, freshman year.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was recently brought to our attention that the correlation between female college athletes and those in leadership roles is extremely high. A 2013 Ernst & Young survey found that 96% of women in the C-suite played sports at some level, and among the C-suite women, 55% had played sports at a university level. Compared with just 39% of other female managers (via USA Today). So, I guess we were destined to do big things.
All It Takes Is One Person To Believe In You
Sophomore year we took our competitive nature off-court (well, in my case, course — I ran cross-country and track) and into the boardroom. It was here we pitched business concepts in hopes of winning scholarships.
And win we did. With our initial concept Snap System. It was a retractable cord bike lock and suite of accessories (still a great idea, let me tell you), and it landed us 3rd place in our first business plan competition. MAJOR confidence booster.
One of the esteemed judges in the room really liked our idea. He slid his scorecard down the table. There were notes scribbled on every inch of the page. He stuck a Post-It note on top that read, “You’ll make millions with this.”
Our eyes got wide and we couldn’t help but grin. Our excitement wasn’t centered on the potential to make millions. Rather, what struck us at 19-years young, was someone who’s led several successful ventures believed in us, and our capabilities.
For me personally, this was a monumental shift. I’m talking Titanic proportions. The gal who wanted to climb the ladder at Target Corp had a new avenue to explore. A total 180.
This proved that no matter our age or inexperience level, we have great ideas and are completely capable of executing on them. Plus, we could get seasoned entrepreneurs on board with our concepts.
But the reality was…
It was 2008. As we slid further into the Great Recession, our shiny object Snap System startup became merely a pipedream. It faded quickly into the distance as the market tanked and we remembered we were only halfway through college.
Feeling capable of launching something, just not something that required a high level of engineering, international travel, and at the very least, $250k to get off the ground, we tabled the idea.
The entrepreneurial bug wouldn’t quit, though. I wanted nothing more than to create something. So I did the obvious thing: sell ugly Christmas sweaters online.
But it wasn’t obvious at the time. Which is why it was so successful. It only cost $6 to start that business. A $6 thrifted sweater and humorous eBay product description promising the sweater would guarantee the lucky bidder to be the life of the party worked. It sparked a bidding war ending in a $50 transaction. The winner even wanted to pay an extra $25 to have it overnighted. And there it was right in front of me, Uber for Ugly Christmas Sweaters (pre-Uber, of course).
This happy accident demonstrated some key lessons in entrepreneurship:
1. Start small (like, super small).
2. Prove a concept.
3. Learn a lot.
Given Xmas sweaters were such a seasonal thing, I was hungry for a new niche, another idea.
Social was getting hot.
It was an era when the dive bar down the street had waaaaay more FB friends than you did. Because businesses were sending friend requests to people. And someone at said business would post 6x per day on their page. And there wasn’t an algorithm in place so everyone would see it. “HAPPY HOUR IS ONNNNN!!!! Get over here, peopllle. shotsshotsshots.”
It was a travesty.
We learned that the owners of these establishments weren’t aware that their employees were wreaking havoc on the Internet with their brand name attached. But we could help them get on the right track. And we did. Our knack for cleaning up Facebook pages — merging the duplicates, reporting imposters, responding to customer inquiries — started gaining us quite the reputation. You’ve gotta call these gals.
When it came time to pitch three business concepts to our class during our Entrepreneurship capstone course, we felt the need to downplay our idea for launching a social media agency. We wanted to win, and a service business was far too boring. Our lead ideas were collegiate “athleisure” apparel and a digital lifestyle magazine (like a blog but better! Powered by the latest and greatest PDF Flipbook Technology! My entire competitive research set is now defunct, so we dodged that bullet). Our last, and in our joint opinion, least compelling concept, was a social media agency.
And the class chose…
The social media agency.
Really? You guys want us to devote our entire semester to this one?
So that was that. We came around to the idea. Committed to it. Researched the hell out of it. And got some early feedback from small business owners that not only would they pay for it, they wanted to.
Halfway through writing our business plan we landed our big project and had to prove our worth. Put our ideas into action and make sure we could live up to our promises. Ok, ok, so this first client was a bar. A college bar. Sounds simple, right? Well, the once-popular Thursday night student crowd was no longer loyal to this storied establishment. In fact, they were on the brink of letting go of their DJ, bouncers, and cut staff in desperation.
We were on it.
It was one of those “no bad ideas” situations. We needed to make this work. We were in too deep to fail. After all, we shook hands with the owner and told the soon-to-be-fired staff that they could count on us to keep their jobs. We talked a BIG game. And we had to see the vision through.
It was 3 loooong weeks. But the attendance stats were in and hit the mark. Pre vs. Post campaign foot traffic increased 70%. We tasted success with social, and we were hooked.
Our small entry fees enticed local bar and restaurant owners. “I’ll try anything,” we heard time and again. So we got to run with pretty much anything we wanted. As long as it was Facebook (or Twitter).
This initial client campaign proved Facebook and Twitter were effective marketing channels (especially for small businesses) and we could demonstrate real, tangible ROI to the owners of these small businesses.
Get a Job or Go All In?
We were graduating in May. Everyone wanted to know our post-grad plans. Our replies were about as unconventional as they come. Often met with unsolicited advice to ‘Get a job,’ or better yet, ‘Get a real job.’ We politely declined this advice. The world. Our oyster. All that.
The enthusiasm lasted through the summer. And then I hit saltine rock bottom. The bottom shelf variety. At Cub Foods — Midway Minneapolis. A pivotal time when I realized all I could afford was a box of bottom-shelf saltines (Retail Price: ~$1.80).
I never wanted to feel this way again. Starving. Looming uncertainty. Well, I could buy groceries. But rent’s due and so is my car payment which pretty much means I have less than 2 weeks to come up with $731. Scratch that, $1500.
So I reluctantly got a job. One with decent pay and weekend hours. Bartending. On the plus side, it tied up my weekend evenings which was helpful, since I couldn’t afford to go out with friends and had a serious FOMO problem.
So it worked out. For a while. Between my boyfriend’s retail schedule and me working around the clock, we rarely saw each other. Realizing how unsatisfying it was to never see him and my yearning to invest all my energy into getting our agency off the ground, I quit. My boss begged me three times to come back and work New Years Eve. We’ll double your hourly wage. No, triple.
Nah. I was out and not turning back.
At this same time, Emily was working two restaurant jobs in addition to our day job. Burnout was all too real. We each had a small stash of cash stocked up, and devised an ultimatum: Let’s give it 90 days. If we can’t start paying ourselves in 90 days, we’ll need to shut. it. down.
Lesson learned? A steady paycheck has its perks, but for the entrepreneur, the drive to build a business just won’t quit.
Why do so many highly funded companies fail? I’d argue it’s because founders never hit Saltine Rock Bottom.
The Little Engine that Could
Slowly but surely, that Small Business Checking account started to grow. We hit a hot streak, signing on new *paid* client projects, and getting referrals from clients and partners. We even landed a write-up in the Pioneer Press. We buckled down and kept our eyes on the prize (prize = paying ourselves tiny sums of $).
And that we did. We paid $50 for a set of yellow checks with lightbulb logos on them (thanks, Deluxe!) and took turns snapping photos of each other holding #ourfirstrealpaychecks. $1,500 each. Big league.
Social was getting hotter as a marketing avenue, and word was spreading that we had some serious skills. This attracted attention and landed us in a lot of meetings. Here we met a subset of the population called business bullshitters. Meeting after meeting. Non-billable hour after non-billable hour. We put so much time and energy and spec work (Oops) into this, we need it to go through.
It was during this same time we learned a few other major lessons — the hard way. Our track record attracted some slimeballs who wanted to take advantage of our social prowess. Proposal after proposal. Idea list after idea list. Brainstorm after brainstorm. Only to find out they had no money. And an internal team ready to execute our ideas. Yes, those ideas we just gave them. For free. Swing and a major miss.
It was time to get us a legit Advisory Board. A team of people we could trust to tell it to us straight. People who had been in these situations, seen the outcomes. This forced us to part with the “ankle-biters” and focus on what was important: landing paid clients and executing quality work. Oh, and help us plan for the future of our company. Not day-in and day-out, but next year, and the following year.
With a refreshed focus on the opportunities in front of us, and encouragement to keep doing our one thing and doing it better than anyone else, we forged ahead. We stayed true to our core focus of mastering all things social, and it worked. Our client roster grew to include startups and Fortune 10 companies, and everything in between.
And then I woke up and it was 2016. The past 5 years have seriously flown by. Gone are the days of #thatstartuplife. But that’s not to say things have settled down. We’ve still got a seat on the high-speed rollercoaster, complete with unpredictable twists and turns. But I’ve learned that the longer you ride the coaster, the more you get used to the speed, the change, the unpredictability.
While the goin’ doesn’t get “easy,” per se, it gets pretty freakin’ fun. When you realize you have the ability to steer this entity (yes entity, something bigger and more powerful than yourself) in a new direction. When you have the ability to attract and employ top talent. And when on any given day, a dream client could call/email/introduce themselves professing how they’ve heard so many wonderful things about your company and are eager to learn how you can work together. And yes, in these instances, our jaws still drop to the floor.
Looking back, there was so much we didn’t know in the early days, and many things we learned the hard way. The roller coaster that is self-employment and running and scaling a business is very real — right down to the stomach-drops-out-of-your body feeling. It’s a blessing and a curse of epic proportions.
But at the end of the day, there’s no greater satisfaction than building something out of nothing, creating highly sought-after jobs, seeing the impact you’re making for your clients, and hearing just how much they appreciate the work that you do.
Are we lucky? Absolutely. Were we in the right industry and the right time? No question.
When we started The Social Lights in 2011, there was no template for success. No way to produce a carbon copy of an existing business. So we blazed our own trail. And we’re extremely proud of that.
But the bigger lesson here is on opportunity — You never know what opportunity looks like. No idea is too small. No idea is bulletproof. And let’s be honest, ideas are just thoughts or notes on paper until somebody puts them into action. Five years from now your harebrained idea that everybody doubts could well be the next big thing. You never know. Be open to the possibilities. Let the naysayers fuel your fire.
Which is all to say…
Thank you. Yes, you. Thank you for reading this. And if you’ve been part of our journey, THANKS IN ALL CAPS. Even if you’re the one who doubted our monetization potential, or scammed us into handing over truckloads of spec work, or tested our patience in some way shape or form — you taught us something important. We’re getting stronger, smarter, and in many ways, just getting started. Join us, won’t you?