Founder of Company of Women, Anne Day, shares her business journey and motivations. Facing tough challenges taught her that money is just one element of success: it is more about leading a meaningful life where what we do fulfills us, we have control over how we spend our time, and can be there for our families.
I have often compared starting a business with motherhood. You cope with the same range of emotions — excitement about the new venture, quickly coupled with total fear and panic that you may not be up for the task in hand, be it running a business or raising a child. When you are pregnant, you read all the books available, attend the prenatal classes, and ask for advice from anyone who will listen. Likewise, when you are starting a business, you read the books, sign up for workshops, and get conflicting advice from friends and family.
Nothing prepares you for the reality
It is almost as if there is a code of secrecy. No one wants to tell you what it is really like. No one wants to spell out the down times. And no one wants to admit that it was less than perfect for her. Yet, if we were to be honest, in both cases there are some less than perfect days — well, okay, weeks — when we question our sanity and our ability to manage this new role. And frankly, it doesn’t get much easier as your business grows, the issues are just different, for example, when you hire staff. It’s like when you’ve mastered one parenting technique, your children enter a new phase and you are back questioning your aptitude for being a parent. That’s why it helps to connect with folks who have been there. But there wasn’t such a group there for me when I started my consulting practice from my home. I remember feeling the same pangs of isolation as I did when I was home with my first daughter, yet I felt sure other women working from home felt the same way. So I started Company of Women, basically back then it was a support group for women business owners. It was meant to be something I did on the side while I built my consulting business. This start-up wasn’t really that altruistic as I wanted to meet like-minded women and make new friends, because my existing friends didn’t get the new path I was on. I booked a hotel, found a speaker and advertised, you can imagine my delight when 165 women signed up for that first event. It was then that I knew I was on to something.
Life threw me a curveball
For two years I kept both businesses running, by day I was working as a community developer and was doing really well, and by night I focused my energies on Company of Women. It truly was a double life, and who knows how long I would have kept up this dual existence, but then life threw me a curveball – I was diagnosed with breast cancer (again) and that really forced me to look at my priorities. When you are faced with a life-threatening illness, you focus on what is important to you, and by far that was Company of Women. I saw it as my legacy and so I closed the doors of my consulting practice, and focused all my energies on building Company of Women – a decision I have never regretted. Today, eleven years later, we have seven chapters, six in Ontario and one in Manitoba. On average we put on 80 events a year, now many of them are virtual and we’ve established a community of women that care for and support each other. Our annual conference brings women together from across Canada, and we have a following of over 8,000 women through our online publications and social media.
Dropping the mask of perfection
Over the years, I’ve discovered that regardless of the type of business, or where you are located, the challenges faced are often similar – finding customers, staying positive, making the business financially viable and cash flow – to name but a few. But we can support and help each other if we are prepared to be honest and drop the mask of perfection. As women, we have so many doubts about ourselves and our ability to deliver, that sometimes we forget that most of us feel the same way at one stage or another. Meeting with other women, hearing their stories, and sharing our own, lends itself to creating community. We’ve become a tribe. Word of mouth has been our strongest form of marketing. Women come to an event and like what they see and how they feel, and tell their friends. Women tell me that they feel safe and accepted, and depending on the day and how they feel, they can be Suzy or Suzy Entrepreneur, as our goal is to support them first as women, and then as women business owners.
Ask any event planner and they will tell you that the biggest challenge is, excuse the expression, “getting bums in seats.” People are notorious for leaving it to the last minute to register, so you never know until the day of the event whether you have enough people or whether you are going to breakeven. So it is stressful and not for the faint of heart. I’ve found over the years that you have to change it up. You can’t get complacent and think that what worked well one year, will the next. Listening to your customer and offering what they want rather than what suits you, is the key. When I first started Company of Women, women were nervous about registering and paying online. Today, our website and programming is all done online and the back end of our website has been systemized so we don’t need someone manually entering data. Technology has been our friend and by embracing it, we’ve become way more efficient. While I love what I do and Company of Women has been a huge success, it is not a business path to choose if you want to make a fortune. In part, this has been my choice in that I want what we offer to be affordable and accessible for women. And I tend to get creative to make that happen – such as bartering services – so women can participate. That doesn’t always lead to a get-rich-plan. One of the toughest decisions I had to make was to stop the production of our quarterly magazine, Company. I just loved our small, but mighty publication, as did our readers from across Canada. However, it was costing me a fortune and with declining advertising, I had to pull the plug, much as I hated doing so. It speaks to how there comes a time, when you may have to make those tough decisions in order to keep your business alive – such as letting a staff person go or cancelling a program – but at the end of the day, if you want to survive, you have to do it. I still dream and fantasize about reviving the magazine, and who knows, when the economic climate is right, that may still happen. As I hand the day-to-day running of the chapters over to my chapter leaders, I plan to focus my energies on some new projects – online mastermind groups, retreats, and taking our conference on the road, as well as more public speaking. I also want to write another book that will focus on women and self-doubt, and how we can become more accepting of ourselves and recognize that we are enough.
Success is about making a difference
Giving back is integral to my life and at 62, I am that stage when making oodles of money is not my driving force. Success to me is about making a difference; about helping women realize their potential. To that end, I bankrolled the start of the organization with the money I made through my consulting practice and I continue to get behind and volunteer for causes that support women. So often we are told “go big, or go home” but it’s OK if you prefer to keep the business small and manageable. It’s what works for you that is important. I often encourage women to strive to achieve their definition of success, not someone else’s. For some, while yes, they want and need to make money, it is more about leading a meaningful life where what we do fulfills us, we have control over how we spend our time, and can be there for our families.
Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. Surround yourself with people who are positive and will support you in your endeavours. You don’t need the “negative Nellies” and naysayers adding to the doubt you may already have about whether your business will succeed or not. You do need friends who will be honest when need be, so choose who you listen to carefully. Listen to your gut instinct, as it is usually right.
What have I learned?
- Learn from disappointments. Don’t view mistakes as failure, but more lessons you needed to learn. Make note and move on.
- Don’t take yourself or life too seriously. Keep your sense of humour; it will help you make it through the tough times.
- Believe in yourself. Seek out the life you deserve and want for yourself. If you have the passion, commitment and drive, you can succeed. Surround yourself with cheerleaders.
And in case you ever wonder why you decided to enter the world of entrepreneurship, you should know that, just as with motherhood, there are many moments of great joy and a true sense of accomplishment. Those crucial milestones — when you get your first order, complete a successful project, or pull off a big sale — are exhilarating.
I know I for one could never go back to working for someone else. I enjoy my freedom too much, and in fact I doubt if I am employable anymore!
So remember, you matter. People care. You don’t have to be alone when you own.