Want To Be An Entrepreneur? Here Are 7 Tips From A Woman Who Didn’t Give Up
Great genetics may make Sheila Marmon appear like she's new to the game, but with over 15 plus years of experience in the media, digital and financial industries, this Harvard Business School grad strategically positioned herself for success. Unlike some of her peers, the 40-something CEO didn't strike gold while sitting in a cushy corporate office, backed by a six-figure salary, paid vacation days and a 401K. She quietly and diligently created her own digital empire, smack-dab in the middle of her kitchen. In 2012, the L.A. native launched an ad tech company with a simple yet unrivaled service. "Mirror Digital connects leading brands to the growing U.S. multicultural market, through our network of social media influencers, boutique digital publishers and bloggers nationwide," Sheila explains. By providing access to impactful multicultural content creators, top companies can advertise to audiences they've had limited access to. Today her firm has executed over 300 interactive ad campaigns for clients like Sony Pictures, Marriott and Verizon. PowerToFly spoke with Sheila about what it takes to launch a successful business, along with the tips and tricks she's learned along the way.
Tip 1: Use your work experience to create a business that speaks to a larger mission.
In her experience working with media, digital and financial brands, Sheila developed a passion for launching new projects, which naturally grew into launching new businesses. From roles at Morgan Stanley, Essence and Time Inc., she's had her hand in shaping the growth, development and look, of many print and digital properties. But her big aha moment surfaced after working in the multicultural media space. "I helped launch Sports Illustrated Latino, worked on People en Espanol (and) launched a multicultural fashion magazine. I saw that there wasn't a lot of investment or even attention being paid to what was going on with multicultural consumers from a digital perspective. That's where I came up with the idea to launch Mirror Digital, because it explicitly looks to build and fund an ecosystem of digital content creators of color through an ad network model," she says.
Tip 2: Make a financial plan, and even still, be prepared for lean days.
Today Sheila employs a staff of 14. Her team has executed over 350 interactive campaigns, for clients like Macy's and General Motors; but that wasn't the case when Mirror Digital first launched, in 2012. She initially nurtured her fruitful idea in the kitchen of her Inglewood, California condo. "It was a bootstrap startup, so those were lean days," she laughs. After living off of her savings and working alone for a year, she hired her cousin. "She was so tremendously helpful in helping me get things off the ground … We were working 18 hours a day, with no resources. Two of my sorority sisters loaned me money, to get over that first hump, until we got a client … it was amazing that I had friends and family step up for me … You really have to be financially prepared to launch a business."
Sheila speaking on Council of Urban Professionals panel
Tip 3: Ask for help.
It was almost by accident that Sheila got help from her cousin, who was new to L.A. and job hunting. Looking back, she admits that she should have asked for help sooner. "A lot of female entrepreneurs in particular end up launching a sole proprietorship and they're doing everything from making the coffee, to taking out the trash, to closing the clients … You've got to get leverage to move yourself forward, so that you're not driving yourself crazy … Men are so much better at asking for what they need. I'll meet a man and within five minutes he's telling me what I can do to help him with his business. Women don't do that as aggressively. We need to think about how we can use the resources around us, whether they're colleagues, old bosses, friends or people we've networked with." She says that the key is identifying, "What's your ask that's going to help you get your business to the next level?" While running the show can be incredibly liberating, it's also demanding. Sheila warns budding entrepreneurs to know their limitations and hire people who can offset their own weaknesses.
Tip 4: Know your market.
In the process of solidifying funding and establishing a staff, it's important to research the market that you plan to impact. Sheila's previous work experience, including a failed business venture in the multicultural media space, helped her learn the ins and outs of the market and create a solid business model for Mirror Digital. "Multicultural consumers control 25 cents of every dollar spent in this country, so that is really significant. And in aggregate, you're looking at over 3.6 trillion dollars in economic investment and development … I hear people say, 'Oh, you focus on a really interesting niche.' And I just think to myself, 'Oh my God, do you realize that this is not a niche? This is the driving force of our economy right now,'" she affirms.
Sheila alongside Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, during Council of Urban Professionals panel
Tip 5: "Crystalize your value."
While you may understand how the market could benefit from your product, it's essential to convey why a client should work with you. In addition to distinguishing your business from competition, it's important to provide a unique value to clients. For Mirror Digital, it's giving Fortune 500 brands, and other large advertising agencies, access to bloggers, influencers and other digital content publishers with large multicultural audiences, that they're not be plugged into. They also create custom social media marketing campaigns to fit their client's needs —"whether they want to advertise on websites, mobile, social platforms," Sheila explains. Once you identify your value, it's time to sell — with the right marketing materials. "Your media kit, your website, your capabilities presentation —you have to have those things in concert to present the same look and feel, and also resonate with your value proposition. So does this look like material from a company that's bringing me curated media or does it look like a construction company? You have to be really mindful of that branding element," Sheila adds.
Tip 6: Prepare yourself for "hand to hand combat."
In order to link Fortune 500 companies with multicultural content creators, first, she had to meet them. Sheila refers to her intense networking process as "hand to hand combat," explaining, "I would go to the blogger conferences. I would get referrals from different people that I knew … City by city we built the network up. Starting with New York, and L.A., Atlanta and Chicago … we have a mix of websites, bloggers, email newsletters, all digital content creators. We tend to work with close to 200 to 500 on a regular basis, depending on what the content is, what ethnic group they represent, because we can create campaigns specifically for African-American, Asian or Hispanic consumers, whatever our advertising client is looking for."
Sheila and Mirror Digital Team members
Tip 7: Build a diverse team that's not afraid to experiment.
"Tech colors everything that we do." Sheila says. "We are in the ad-tech industry. So, I joke that we really find ourselves in a new business every six months, because there's always an innovation and everything is constantly changing." To embrace change, the CEO fosters a culture of experimentation, so that both staffers and clients aren't afraid to think and work differently. "My team looks like the new America," Sheila explains. "(There are) a lot of young people who may not have understood that there was opportunity like this or felt welcomed in this industry to learn, grow and ultimately take a leadership role … Everyone is represented and contributes together; that's what makes me excited about what we do."
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