It was one of those unseasonably warm evenings in Denver. The winter sun had just melted into low-slung clouds that were hugging the mountains, lighting them up in a halo of orange and silver, and I was standing on a balcony. Not just any balcony. I was 22 floors above the city in the iconic Daniels and Fisher Clock Tower, taking in panoramic views of the front range, chatting with a few close friends and my WideFoc.us team.
In another 30 minutes or so, the penthouse floors of the tower would be filled with a healthy crowd of more well-wishers — clients, colleagues, agency partners — joining us at 5.5 thousand feet above sea level to celebrate the 5.5-year anniversary of my social media consulting agency.
But for that moment, early in the party, a warm breeze swishing my hair around as I watched the sunset, with just a few special people around me, I had the time and perspective to take a deep breath and think back on the strange and wondrous road that brought me to that perch above the city.
The winding journey from biochemist to chef to corporate trainer to teacher to author to newspaper editor to social network creator/publisher/editor to PR agency account executive to VP of marketing at a startup to business owner (phew!) is a story unto itself. If I said that I started out working as a scientist in pediatric hematology and ended up, years later, as an author and the owner of a social media strategies company, it would seem like an enormous leap. But the narrative of small steps from one career to the next makes its own sort of logical sense. Mostly.
But when I thought back to that fateful moment, five and a half years ago, sitting on a terrace of a favorite coffee shop on a perfect summer morning, doing project work from friends and business associates while applying for jobs...that moment when I said, “Screw it. I just want to do this,” I’m sort of in awe of the balls I had to just go for it.
With next to nothing in the bank, a new credit card, and a couple of small writing and strategy contracts in the works (copywriting and overseeing the development of printed collateral for one friend, drafting press releases and writing advertorial articles for another), I decided I wasn’t going to work for anyone else anymore.
That very day, I brainstormed company names (making sure their URLs were available), paid a designer friend to brew up some logo concepts, and started designing a website on a blogging platform. Writing my own website copy was easy, and within a day of going live, I had emails and calls for contract work.
But it wasn’t until the owner of an interactive agency in Boulder called me for help in pitching the social media aspects of a larger contract that my new career really took shape.
We’d worked together briefly, when his agency built the website for my previous startup. I was the problem child, throwing wrenches in the works by asking for functionality nobody understood. I wanted the site to be what I called “social media friendly,” with opportunities for users to make the brand more than just a utility in their lives. But my specs were vetoed by the startup’s CEO — an indicator that our working relationship was not to last much longer — and the site was built without them. But the owner of the agency somehow picked up what I was laying down, and when he found out that I’d gone indie, he was excited to put me to work.
That was the first fortunate step toward building my company — someone recognized a set of competencies in me that I didn’t know were worth much.
The second fortunate step happened over a dirty chai with one of the venture capital investors from the previous startup — a super-smart but grounded sage who asked me to pull up my website on my computer so he could show me something.
“See how you list ‘marketing strategy’ and ‘PR’ at the top, and ‘social media strategy and execution’ buried way down at the bottom? Get rid of all that other stuff, and move ‘social media’ to the top. Then start figuring out how you’re going to scale and hire more people, because you’re going to be busier than you can handle faster than you realize.”
I took the first part of his advice, but almost crashed and burned within the first six months of working for myself because I waited just a few weeks too long to make my first hire.
The first couple of years were all about survival — getting enough business to pay staff and mortgage and childcare expenses, taking responsibility when we messed up, figuring out pricing and proposals, taxes, and profit and loss. Social media consulting was in its infancy, and we developed new models and processes, refining them year over year.
The cycle of busyness waxed and waned, but continued to grow over time, due to happy customers referring us on, professional relationships cultivated with love and attention, and some particularly good luck. We got screwed by the occasional deadbeat charlatan or badly negotiated deal (I learned, I grew), but mostly we got better at what we offered our clients.
I’ve learned so much about running a business in the last five years. Mostly from my own stupid mistakes. From sorting out how to bill and collect payments, to struggling with keeping staff productive, learning, and motivated (and knowing when/how to let go), to workflows, office organization, bookkeeping, and maintaining my own daily drive and motivation when I was blue or overwhelmed or heartbroken or just damn tired, I’ve somehow managed to keep the company growing and thriving in spite of my shortcomings and screw-ups.
This month, due to an unprecedented influx of new business since the turn of the year, I’ve staffed up to a crew of five at differing levels of employment. We may need to expand even further, if a couple of new contracts come in. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.
We’re also moving into new core competencies, which is even more exciting to me. Social media platforms and tactics constantly morph and shift, but the essential strategies stay the same — identify your audiences, set specific measurable goals for your efforts, identify tactical approaches that support those goals with those audiences (choosing platforms that are most resonant and effective), and then sort out your content and conversation plans for said platforms. The tactics can become more or less complex or creative, depending on the goals, but the essential strategies rarely change much.
But with the advent of transmedia in storytelling — whether it’s a brand story, or a creative narrative — a whole new set of strategies and tactics are emerging as effective ways to build awareness or tell a tale. That’s the kind of thing that gets all of my pistons fired up!
On the creative side, the slow process of selling my second young adult novel has opened up opportunities to build buzz by telling side stories in different ways (starting with two novellas...now available on Amazon, and in need of reviews, if you’re so inclined: the first is “The 3rd Caper,” and the second is “Sarah Tuesday on the Run.”). The novellas, some mysterious websites, and some other secret storytelling tactics are all in the works.
On the professional side, strategic partnerships and intense conversations mean that we’ll be rolling out a slew of new approaches. That means better results for our client base, new opportunities for my company, and a bunch of valuable experience for my team.
And that’s another unforeseen effect of being in business for five-plus years — gaining experience doing the work we do has become a valuable career stepping stone for several of my hires over the years. They’ve come in unproven, have learned how to be strategic in social media (and have actively contributed their wisdom during brainstorming and developing strategies and processes), then have moved on to next-level work at larger companies. WideFoc.us has been an incubator for talent, and that makes me happy. I’m a teacher at heart, after all, so watching people I care about grow and transform is supremely rewarding. Even when I have to say goodbye so they can stretch and take their skills elsewhere.
As our anniversary party guests found their way to the upper floors of the tower, awestruck by the interior design and exterior views, providing me with congratulatory hugs, I let myself enjoy the moment and stopped thinking too hard about what we’d been through and what challenges were on the way. Instead, I asked the cute bartender for another glass of rum punch, took a bite of steak tartar catered by a favorite local restaurant, and surrendered to the evening.