I was on the brink of losing my job, struggling to keep up with the 100 call goal at my recruiting job when the sales director handed me a book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” as a final effort to try to coach me before the inevitable firing he’d planned.
I sobbed all the way home, knowing it meant that the work I’d done to try to improve was still lacking. Little did I know that this first text on the topic of influence would lead me down a path to launching one of the largest women’s membership organizations in the city of Denver, and possibly the entire state.
As Founder of Women of Denver, I started a network with the goal of building my own community in a new city. That tiny little group started in 2014 with just 5 women around a coffee shop table now hosts dynamic events each month with thousands of annual attendees and hundreds of premium members.
What began as a passion project has successfully replaced my corporate director’s salary and provided a part-time work-life balance of splitting time between work and raising my son at home.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
As a young teen, I remember being entered into a student art show at the local museum. Hundreds of students were selected to showcase their work for the local community to come view. Little did I know that our pieces were also for sale! I sold my first piece of art that day to a corporate office that wanted a colorful art piece for their entry.
Let people see who you are, help them and be of value, and build a tribe of people who want to see you succeed.
The spark of creating something beautiful that was valuable enough to pay me never left. It was that day when I realized that I could have fun and make money at the same time. I was also a science nerd, band geek, and bowling champ and took pride in winning savings bonds each year in local competitions in each of these areas.
Over time I’d go on to sell many things, including starting an online wig business in my college dorm during the brief eBay boom. As a college student, I was always finding new ways to make a side income, but without much business acumen, I continued to lose out on long-term potential from my ventures.
It wasn’t until later in life, after several years away from entrepreneurship, that I gained a boost in confidence that perhaps I was born to be an entrepreneur. I decided to get my MBA to learn the tools I’d need to thrive and avoid a continued path of mediocrity in business. I worked on my MBA while working as a marketing coordinator for a multi-family housing developer, going home after work each day to hop on the laptop and work on my latest assignments.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
Entrepreneurship is certainly not a clear and easy path. Going to work was easier. I woke up, did my daily assignments, went home to play video games or binge TV, and sleep 8-10 hours. Easy.
Becoming an entrepreneur the self-funded slow and steady way meant waking up, going to work, grabbing a quick dinner, spending another 4-5 hours on the computer working, and getting 5-6 hours of sleep. Not so easy.
The transition was hard on me and was a tough transition for my spouse as well.
Eventually, I began pulling in enough annual revenue to pay my basic expenses and keep the business running, so my husband and I decided it was time for me to leave my job to work full time to achieve the remaining balance required to fully replace my income. That first year, I made $30,000 more than I made in my corporate job and knew that this was a sign that I could continue growing and thriving in the business.
Getting there took personal debt, which I’m still paying off today. I always remind people to look at their financial situation before taking leaps. I had savings, predictable revenue, and access to personal credit. It’s important to know what funding options you have around you and plan for the lows.
For marketing, I attribute my success to SEO, retargeting ads, and good customer experience. Most people who fill out my forms say they found Women of Denver through Google, so SEO has been huge for me. I invested in freelance help to build my SEO and also put budget each month into Google ads for additional boost invisibility.
We have a great track record of renewals and continue to get new visitors each month, which replaces those who drop off. The business has been consistent and I have a goal this year to double our monthly memberships to support bringing on another full-time team member.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The company is profitable with a 70% gross margin. We spend between 300-800 each month on advertising and the major expenses of venue space are often supported by sponsors who benefit from reaching our audience.
Our website gets about 8,000 visitors each month, and about 9,000 social media followers. I remember believing that for a business to succeed required tens of thousands of followers, but we’ve done really well with a smaller following.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most challenging part of running a business has been finding support. I had a full-time job during the first 3 years, so I relied on a wonderful team of volunteers who helped me manage events when I couldn’t be there.
Once I left corporate I tried hiring support teams for marketing and sales, but realized that the best marketer and the best salesperson is myself. I really couldn’t pay enough to make it worth their time to really focus on Women of Denver the way I needed them to, and commission is not a good incentive for most workers.
The most valuable step I took was prioritizing partnerships. Event businesses are highly expensive with venue costs and food genuinely astronomical for a small business. By working with partners on complimentary venue and food in exchange for marketing their services I was able to not only be viable but to make the business profitable.
Lastly, I hear lots of people talking about how it’s challenging for them to stay on task or get motivated. I’ve never had a single moment of struggle with staying motivated, sitting up all day or night on my laptop to get things done, and showing up with my whole self to give great customer service.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The tools that have helped me the most include Weebly for easy website management, Bluehost for hosting and creating emails for my team, and Join.it to provide membership benefits.
We also use:
- MailChimp for email marketing
- Stripe and Square for payment processing
- Google Drive to manage and share files
- Canva and Lucidpress for designing flyers and social media content
- Fiverr for short term help
- Quickbooks for money-management
- Calendly for scheduling sales calls
- Facebook Groups for community engagement and branding
- Buffer for scheduling monthly posts
Memberships to all these tools are a big part of my budget and it’s truly a pain to have to use so many tools to accomplish my business tasks. If a tool came along to do everything, I’d jump on it in a minute!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Power of Broke was a great book for reminding me of the value of using my resources wisely. It’s so easy to envy those who started bigger companies that have a lot of venture funding or loans to help them scale, but this is the first book that discussed their high failure rate and the benefits of being tight on funds. It reminded me that excess cash makes it easier to artificially boost sales even when you aren’t serving your market well. Being lower in cash means making every decision count, which makes it easier to be more strategic about each move.
The Fastlane Millionaire was a great book for helping me think about the lifestyle I want from my entrepreneurial life. The goal is to reclaim my time, stop selling pieces of my life (hours), and create real assets. The book’s principles are common conversation around our household as now my husband has also read the book several times. We evaluate life decisions based on whether it’s a slow-lane or fast-lane approach.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The entrepreneurial fantasy we’ve been sold is a lie. It’s not easy or glamorous and it’s hard for most people to build something that gives them the fantasy life on the beach with a laptop.
I started my business the way people imagine. I brought in a film crew, found influential women to feature, posted it up on my blog for all 3 website visitors, and waited for people to show up.
The people who actually came to my first event were those who found my brand through marketing the meeting on Eventbrite or meeting them in person and inviting them verbally to attend. There were 5 women at the first event and I spent $40 on the food they didn’t eat and $50 on the venue -- a total of $90 for just a handful of attendees.
I didn’t start charging until I had a grasp on a business model and structure and when I did, I had events where I had just 1 person in the room because those who attended for free weren’t willing to pay for the experience.
It took hours of pounding the pavement to meet people and introduce them to my mission, hours of phone calls to sell memberships, and hundreds of emails and social media posts to stay relevant as people watch to see if my brand had the lasting impact they needed to see to trust their dollars as a member.
My advice to new entrepreneurs is always to get out from behind the computer and shake lots of hands. Let people see who you are, help them and be of value, and build a tribe of people who want to see you succeed.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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