It all started with a voicemail notification. I had just woken up from a nap on a Friday evening. I checked the voicemail to hear my recruiter on the other end: “Shannel, I regret to inform you that you have been released from your position, effective today. Let me know a good time to meet up if you want to get your stuff.” Groggy and confused, I played the message over again to make sure I heard it correctly. I was being laid off from a contract design job at a major corporation that I was doing well at, so I thought. My manager and I had just talked about a new initiative she wanted me to help her with. I never received any complaints — in fact, it was quite the opposite. I had only been on the job for three months. And earlier that same year, just four months prior, I had been laid off from another job where I served as a graphic designer for almost 4 years. Well, I was pissed off, to say the least. The year was 2010. This was the year I started my first real business and took an unexpected dive into entrepreneurship.
Sometimes the greatest lessons (and blessings) come from our greatest challenges. The year that I got laid off — not once, but twice — was the year I gave two middle fingers to corporate America and decided to do something different. Little did I know that this decision would not only be one of my greatest moments of personal and professional growth, but it would also challenge me in ways that I didn’t anticipate. Here’s the story of my first real business (condensed, of course) and the important lessons I learned.
Humble and Naive Beginnings
The infamous voicemail on that fateful, late summer day was the start of something special and something new. I wasn’t sure what to do other than file for unemployment. But my partner at the time (a designer, like myself) was brewing up an idea. 2010 was during the time when printed coupon books and online deals were hot, with Groupon and LivingSocial emerging as big players in the space. The idea for our first business spawned from seeing a coupon book laying on the coffee table in the waiting room at my doctor’s office. My partner had done some investigative research and called/met up with a couple of publication business owners (including the owner on the back of the coupon book); he pretended to be a curious prospect and inquired about ad rates and the whole process. With his findings, the lightbulb went off and he had an epiphany to launch a community coupon magazine for our area, where we would not only provide businesses exposure and the community with great deals, but we would offer graphic and web design services to those businesses as well. I was down with the idea. What did I have to lose? We called our publication Around Town Shopper.
Now I know you might be asking, what did I know about business? Well, aside from the small design business my roommate and I experimented with in college to pay a few bills, plus the freelance work I had been doing on the side for about 5 years at that time — I guess not much. But what I didn’t know wasn’t enough for me to put my trust back into the hands of the unkind job world. With excitement, anxiety, and naivete, we began our journey to building a business and a new way of life.
Formalities and Planning
The first steps after coming up with the business name were registering our business with the state, getting the bank account (the one with zero dollars in it), business UPS box, and all that jazz. Yes, we even wrote up a simple business plan and operating agreement. We spent many hours researching other coupon books and studying their layouts and processes (in our minds, Savvy Shopper was our biggest competition). Essentially, we wanted our magazine to be a reputable source of savings and deals for our community. The first step was essential to our magazine creation; we needed to be able to foster trust with local business owners to get them to buy ad space. The second step would be to create a magazine compiled of these business advertisements, print many copies, and distribute them to the community. In turn, the community would find value in the deals and the local shops would get more exposure and business from the community.
Design played a major role in our business. The advantage of us both being designers was that we were able to start up our business at minimal costs because we were able to create our brand and produce marketing materials ourselves. We knew we needed to be able to sell this idea to local businesses, but how could we sell an advertising magazine that didn’t exist? Well, we created a “faux” magazine. I designed a few advertisements (featuring fake doctors, hair salons, and restaurants) and we printed a few copies of our mini faux booklet. Would it work? We weren’t sure — but it looked pretty darn good for a mock-up.
Again, being designers allowed us to execute our own marketing materials and brand on a high level. It was actually fun to create business cards, promo postcards, a simple website, and sales sheets for our business. We did this with urgency and excitement; by the following month, we had all of these materials ready to go (it’s not like I was doing anything else).
Creating a Process
Pulling from past job experience and insights learned from sales and marketing colleagues, we knew that having a good process was imperative to starting and maintaining our business engine. Looking back on old files and documents, I chuckle because I had no idea what I was doing, but I must admit it was a valiant effort. We created a simple sales playbook for future sales hires. We created call sheets. We purchased some cheap client management software that we hooked to our website to help us manage customers and their ads. It wasn’t a perfectly fluid process, but it was something.
The First Sale, New Relationships and Many Hats
It’s important to note that I really had no sales experience (unless you count the 2 weeks I worked at a call center in college and then another 2 weeks I barely lasted at a window sales company before I quit). I recall searching the web for sales strategies and tactics that we could apply to help us sell our first ad. Only so much research can be done before you realize that you have to put boots on the ground and just start selling.
The level of anxiety I felt when making cold calls was indescribable. Conducting door to door sales to businesses was agonizing as well. But I knew it was something that had to be done. I remember the very first day we went to go sell our idea to local businesses. We had our hit list and of national chains and local mom and pop shops. We had our sales script. We had on our professional attire. We were nervous but excited. I remember walking into an establishment, smiling, and asking for the owner. “I’m the owner,” says the older gentleman. We hand him the “faux” magazine and run through our sales pitch as he scrutinized and fanned through the pages.
“Is this some sort of national company?” he asks while peering over his glasses at us. “Yes sir, something like that,” I responded with a smile.
We didn’t get the sale but were happy with his response. He assumed we were merely employees (not owners) of a “national” publication. His perception of our business gave us the fuel and encouragement that we needed to keep selling. As we continued with our call lists, selling days, and frequent “no’s”, we reveled in that first “yes” that we finally received.
Our first sale came from the owner of a health and nutrition shop. He grilled us for a good 15–20 minutes, and rightfully so. With seeming reluctance, he purchased a quarter-page ad, but surprisingly, he gave us intel to other nearby business owners that might possibly buy as well. He was also intrigued by the design services we offered and considered entertaining more work from us if the ad worked out. We left his store high on adrenaline, excitement, and thankfulness that we had landed our first sale after about a week or two of consistent rejections.
We were fortunate to meet and sell to more local business owners. Some required multiple attempts before taking a meeting with us and others surprisingly accepted with minimal effort. During this first sales cycle, we fostered new relationships with these owners, some who would go on to purchase design services and some would become long-time customers (and friends). Luckily, we were also able to hire my good friend as a salesperson and also create a barter agreement with a social media manager for our online marketing (who also ended up becoming a good friend). We had our little team, and we were grateful for the help!
We sold enough ad slots to friends with businesses, colleagues, and local shop owners to fill our publication. We proudly closed sales on the front and back covers, a national sandwich chain on the back, and a local business on the front cover. In conjunction with our selling efforts, I also designed ads for each customer and funneled them through our client portal and approval process.
The next step was to print the booklets and distribute them.
The Hustle and 100 Thousand Steps
Navigating through the organized chaos called entrepreneurship was no easy feat. The hustle of selling, marketing, designing, strategizing, collections (we had to get a little aggressive with a few clients), and budgeting was a grand job description that required no less than 100% energy and focus each day to execute.
With the designed and approved ads ready to go, it was now time to bring our publication to life.
The first run of our humble coupon magazine was 10,000 copies. After weeks of research (some of which included mirroring our competitors' distribution maps), we created a distribution plan to disburse these booklets to apartment complexes, shopping centers, doctors/dentist’s offices, and the front desks of some high traffic businesses. Was this solicitation? Partly, yes. But our strategy was to ask for forgiveness before we asked for permission.
Opening the first shipment of our final product was like Christmas morning. It was amazing to see the piles of boxes that contained thousands of booklets — a publication that we created from a mere idea. Turning the crisp pages of our first real (not fake) publication was an indescribable feeling of pride and honestly, an amusement that people were actually willing to invest real dollars into our business. The manifestation of an idea to reality was an undeniable high — but that high gradually faded as we encountered the reality of getting 10K publications into the hands of the community.
Our distribution strategy looked something like this: two or three full days' worth of grueling physical work, starting at 7 am. Part of one day was dedicated to delivering the promised quantities to businesses who purchased an ad, plus the newspaper stands of local shopping centers and business parks. The other half would be covering a large scope of apartment complexes in the local area, covering about a 15-mile radius. Conquering these apartment complexes meant swiftly delivering a copy to each door, which actually translated to walking up and down an ungodly amount of steps, hills, hallways, and breezeways. Much respect to the invisible guy who used to deliver the Chinese paper menus and stick them in the corner of each door. We now understood the sacrifice and pain he endured.
The seemingly endless hours of stair climbing and walking felt like a 12-round heavyweight boxing match. This was the completion of the first edition. The next day, we would be back at selling.
Roadblocks and Rent Due
Three months in and on our second edition, we realized that we needed to change our business model. Selling one ad at a time wasn’t sufficient for real revenue growth (duh) and it required a lot more selling power to maintain our publication. Aside from my measly unemployment check, the publication and added design services were what was keeping me afloat. We needed to be more subscription-based, or at least attempt to sell 3–6 months' worth of ad space at a time. In addition to retention, we needed to make sure we kept a diversity of new offerings to keep the community engaged. We needed to increase the price of our ads. We needed to figure out how to measure the success of existing ads and if businesses were getting any traction with their promotions. There was a lot to do.
For our second edition, we landed a national hair cuttery on the back cover. By our third edition, we had another reputable restaurant on the front cover. We were able to sell customers ad placement for more than one issue. We developed more relationships and the creative services (a business we called Creative Fusion) were picking up speed.
By this time, I was also wearing a knee brace for support during our epic and exhausting distribution days. Most of the time we got through our distributions undisturbed, aside from a few apartment custodians who scolded us in the act of unwanted “solicitation” and a few raised eyebrows here and there from residents. I even delivered publications to my old job (the first one I got laid off from) and we discovered a new landscape of hidden shopping plazas, neighborhoods and newspaper stands that the common eye wouldn’t look at twice. After our long delivery hours, we would capitalize on the inexpensive all-you-can-eat soup and salad at Olive Garden; then we would return from the physical labor of the day to face client calls and due dates for logos, websites, and other creative projects. No two days were alike, and Mondays had no distinction from Saturdays or Thursdays in terms of workload.
Mental toughness was a byproduct of the unrelenting work we were doing; however, faith was a greater tool. I’ll never forget the time when rent was due in just a few days. We were short a few hundred dollars and doing our best to close deals or sell design services to scrap some cash. Although frustrated over a seemingly bleak situation, we walked to a nearby shopping center and sat at the outdoor seating. With determination and faith, we talked out, wrote out, and prayed out our requests. How were we going to make it? We didn’t know, but we laid all of our fears on the table and pressed forward with our plan. Miraculously, the next day we got a call for the back cover we had been trying to sell and collected enough money to pay the rent plus late fees before an eviction notice was sent.
We realized that we were going to run ourselves into the ground if we continued the cycle of doing everything and being everything for the business. We started planning out what was to be a mobile app idea (sort of like deals offered on Groupon) combined with a way to scan exclusive Around Town Shopper deals using QR code promo onsite at local businesses. This strategy would offer a way to scale much faster and broaden our brand recognition, but the undertaking of planning, building, testing, marketing, and selling a mobile app between two people was beyond colossal ambition. We also realized that we should be selling online ad space instead of just offering it as part of the printed package deal, but then that would require driving a lot more traffic to our website to make it worthwhile. There were lots of factors to consider!
In the meantime, a portion of our revenue went to production costs and business expenses. The other part went to, of course, living. All the while I was still doing the required steps to keep my little unemployment check — reluctantly attending required job skills workshops at the unemployment office and haphazardly applying for jobs, hoping that none of them would actually contact me back. It was a juxtaposition that was becoming harder to manage: enjoy the freedom of entrepreneurship but apply to jobs so I can get the little but needed income from unemployment benefits. Eventually, I decided to take on a bit of contract work to supplement my income, because let’s face it, entrepreneurship is hard.
There was a gradual but unsurprising shift from our publication to the creative services business. The more we understood the monumental effort of scaling our ad business, the more energy it seemed to pull out of us. Because we were offering graphic and web design services as an extended service while selling ads, Creative Fusion started getting more traction. We landed enough reputable clients to shift our focus there (I mean, that’s where our innate talents were anyway — and where the money was). I amped up my personal freelance projects and even took on some contract work at a nonprofit.
It was on a random, but fateful Tuesday (let’s call it a Tuesday), that I received an email from one of the many obligatory job applications I had haphazardly submitted. “Loved your portfolio, we would like you to come in for an interview.” This was a global company asking me to interview for a full-time position and a completely unexpected turn of events. With reluctance, I ended up accepting the interview, and consequently, the job. This would be good news to most people, but I felt like it was somewhat of a betrayal to the business we had built. My partner felt that too. However, survival and the yearning for a bit of “normalcy” took precedence — thus, ending my two-year stint as an entrepreneur. The era of Around Town Shopper and its future aspirations officially ended and the likes of Creative Fusion lasted for about another three years after accepting the job offer. The initial plan was to have my job fund the business until we could get things back on track, but somehow a few months turned into almost four years in that corporate position.
My first attempt at full-time entrepreneurship was an experience I’ll never forget. It matured me in so many ways and opened up my mind to the possibilities of personal and financial freedom, manifesting ideas into reality, understanding what hard work really looked like, and pushing myself beyond the limits I thought I had. The most valuable lessons I learned were:
- Plan ahead. There’s only so long you can work “in” the business before you realize you need to work “on” the business. You can only go but so far without building a team and learning to delegate.
- Sales—it is no joke. Business is hard.
- Cultivate a growth mindset. It’s not just enough to “get by” and maintain. You need meaningful growth.
- Doing real business requires continuous improvement of processes, procedures, and protocols.
- Discomfort and change will be constant factors that you must be willing to accept in order to grow to the next level.
- Adversity reveals true character.
- The seemingly impossible is possible. You abide by the rules that you create for yourself. Stepping outside of the status quo reveals new levels of living and learning that you will never discover without risk.
- Self-discipline and consistency are underrated; they maintain progress even when the passion has fizzled out
- Owning something for yourself is worth it. Building with someone you trust is even more exciting.
- God is my source, not a job or business. My faith in Him and in myself increased exponentially. Though not perfect or always consistent, I knew that my faith would lead me back to the calling of entrepreneurship one day.
Ten years later, I’m using these lessons and all that I’ve learned over the years to try again at this adventurous pursuit and see what happens (wink).