Starting and running your own business is hard, but doing it in your twenties is even tougher. With more time in school than in the real world, knowing how to navigate building a business at a young age presents as many advantages as challenges. You are young, ambitious and won't take no for an answer. But you don't know what you don't know. You are less connected and experienced than those starting companies in their 30's, 40's and 50's.
But there seems to be a business-starting-movement afoot amongst millennials. Perhaps it's spurred by the lower costs of starting a service, information or technology company (vs. manufacturing or high capital investment companies), or perhaps the seemingly abysmal post-college job opportunities are behind it, or the fact that the title "owner" is the fifth-most-popular job title among Gen Y workers.
One of the young trailblazers running their own business is Leslie Bradshaw, the President and Chief Operating Officer of the creative agency JESS3. The founding team of two -- Jesse Thomas and Leslie Bradshaw -- grew their company in six years from a two-person operation into a full-blown agency of nearly 30 team members and dozens of contractors with the annual revenue exceeding $5 million. JESS3 specializes in visual storytelling, data visualizatio, and rapid prototyping. And they do it very creatively. They also do specialized projects that require thinking outside the box and unique design. Their work brought them wide recognition and landed them on the cover of several magazines. In 2012, the agency was named #430 on the Inc. 500 list. And both Leslie and Jesse were featured in Inc. 30 Under 30 that same year.
I sat down with Leslie Bradshaw to ask her some questions that are on the minds of young
entrepreneurs today. I am happy to share her wisdom with you today.
Ekaterina: Leslie, what do you attribute your success to?
Leslie: Several things come to mind:
• Perseverance. There were a lot of times when things did not go as we had hoped
and it would have been easier to give up than to keep going. But showing up, each
and every day, working a day job and JESS3 as a night job (which Jesse did for
years, as did I), working every night, every weekend and not giving up has brought
us to where we are today.
• Specialization & Expertise. There are hundreds (thousands even?) of creative
agencies worldwide. What helped us break through the clutter was being the best
at data visualization and visual storytelling. Honing our craft got us meetings that
turned into projects that have turned into long term relationships.
Ekaterina: What are the challenges of running your own business?
• Cashflow. We've never taken outside financing and early on, had very little wiggle
room when it came to when we were expecting a payment vs. when we actually
received a payment. My heart rate would always be much higher when a client was
late and it motivated me to work more closely with our fourth team member and longtime
Comptroller, Carol Zirkle, to get involved on day one to begin the long, arduous
process of collecting money from large companies.
• Talent. Knowing where and what to recruit for and then hiring the right kind of talent.
And, once you have them, training them, integrating them and keeping them happy. Large companies have entire departments dedicated to this. When you start a business, you have to do all of these things yourself. I can honestly say this is one of the biggest learning areas for me -- making the wrong hires, not having the right training programs and, at times, over-committing the team to too many projects and therefore causing burnout are all errors I've made in this area.
Ekaterina: What are the advantages of running your own business?
• Freedom to establish processes, offerings, systems and culture on your own terms.
• Freedom to hire the best and take really good care of talent through the training, advancement and compensation programs you wished your former employers would have provided.
Ekaterina: What do you believe a modern woman needs to know or possess to achieve the similar level of success?
• Confidence in who you are, what you know and where you want to take things -- and
a clear plan of attack to get there
• Negotiation skills
• A mentor in the same field with at least 20 years of experience
• A sponsor in the same field willing to advocate and plug you in
Ekaterina: What do you do outside of work to keep your life balanced?
• I have to admit for the first five years of my time at JESS3, I was really bad at
balance. I was working two jobs for three of those years and barely had time to sleep
(and would often not go to sleep at least one night a week). Then, in 2010, when I
came on full-time at JESS3, I was the only strategist, the only account manager and
the only project manager. This meant I was spread very thin with clients, in addition
to my HR and back-of-house responsibilities.
• Our financial success in 2010, 2011 and now in 2012 has meant we are able to hire
more people that have helped taken on the many roles I once played myself. It is
amazing to have a team of people that are focused and passionate about executing
things that I could barely -- if at all -- attack as just one woman.
• Since last summer, I've kicked off two major fitness, sleep and diet regimens that
have helped me shave off over 20 pounds. Weight aside, I feel amazing. I am
stronger and more alert. I also know that the choices I am making today will mean I
live longer, happier and healthier.
• I unplug as much as I can these days. Whether it is no email at night, or taking
a three-day weekend to visit my family in Oregon, I am trying to get away from being the "always-on" Leslie that's been my identity and modus operendi for the last six years. I also see that when I reduce the number of emails that I send after-hours, my team is able to have more breathing room. I want to set an example with my team by going to the gym, eating healthy, taking time off to be with family and emailing less during off-hours.
Ekaterina: Any advice for women who are starting or looking to start their own ventures?
• Know your strengths and make sure to continue to feed and nurture them.
• Know your weaknesses and make sure to bring on contractors and full time staff that
are strong in these areas.
• Hire a good lawyer and good accountant on day one. Do not try to do either of these
jobs while also being the founder of a company. They are too important to not give
full, expert attention.
• Have a clear plan for your ownership structure and stock option plans. Don't be too
generous and feel you need to give equity away, but also don't be too stingy that you
don't award top performers with an incentive plan to stay with you for the long haul.
• Try to avoid hiring friends and instead go after fresh DNA for your employee and
contractor base. This will help ensure high levels of professionalism and respect for
protocol. It is hard to have tough conversations with employed friends; it is easier
with employed strangers.
• Aim to hire people with at least five years of experience. Early on, I hired too many
people with 0 - 2 years of experience and our company and clients suffered as a
• As soon as you can afford it, hire an assistant (even if on contract). Your time will
become more valuable than gold bullion, and having someone to help you manage
that time is critical. Ideally, the assistant that you hire is more of a chief of staff that
can not only help you manage your schedule, but also all of the micro-steps it takes
to achieve your strategic vision. Your CoS should keep you accountable and help
protect your time and attention so you vision happens.
• As soon as you can afford it, hire a publicist. No matter what industry you are in,
the competition for clients/customers, relevancy and eyeballs is fierce. You need
help navigating the waters of awards, feature stories and thought leadership. We
navigated our publicity waters up until early 2012, when we hired Steve Sapka (now
head of his own shop, but previously the VP/Director of Agency Communications at
Crispin Porter + Bogusky). He's helped us focus our messaging, engage with top
editors and submit our work for the right awards.
Great advice! Thank you. The stories such as Leslie's inspire and elevate us. But anyone who has ever created their own business knows how much work, passion, and sacrifice goes into building and growing their company. It is my hope that you will find Leslie's advice useful in pursuing your dreams.