How I Got Started as an Entrepreneur

Saturday, May 23, 2009

One of the questions I get asked often is how I got started in the industry and if I have any advice on how others can get started. My story is rather unglamorous, but here it is:

Right out of high school I began working at a non-profit organization that did humanitarian aid. The "non-profit" part was no joke - my department had a tiny budget and as a result I did everything: planned events, wrote training curriculum for (and trained) the overseas volunteers, handled all the finances and accounting, worked as a liaison with foreign embassies, etc. When that first Summer came to an end, I decided to put off going to Brown for college and stayed on board, working 80-100 hours per week and eating all of my meals at the office, if I remembered to eat at all. On top of all that, my boss quit unexpectedly and since there was no time and no money to hire someone new, I was promoted and found myself holding an executive position in an international NGO. I was 19.

Needless to say, I burned out, which is why I am such an advocate of setting limits and boundaries now. Burn out is a slippery slope, and is something you think will happen to other people, but never to you. Well, it can happen to you and it sucks. Big time. Do everything you possibly can to avoid it. How I survived that period of my life I will never know. I chalk it up to copious amounts of coffee and grace, with an emphasis on the latter.

I continued on to plan events in the corporate world and in the private sector while I went to school for intercultural psychology. During this time I did weddings for friends; they knew I could do events, and I was happy to use my talents to help them.

I decided that getting paid for my ideas and hard work on weddings might be a good idea, so I looked into starting my own company. I did an exhaustive search online and turned up basically nada. I could find literally nothing that could point me in the right direction on starting a business in the field, so I decided to shelve the idea and continued working in the corporate world.

A few years later I was at dinner with my mom (I remember I ordered soup because I had my wisdom teeth out earlier that week and it was the first "real" meal I could eat) when she mentioned that I should revisit the idea of owning my own company. That night I went online to the IRS website and registered my EIN.

So here's what I had when I started: lots of leadership and event management experience, some money in savings, no business plan, no wisdom teeth. Is this the way I would recommend others start? Not exactly, but it is the way it happened for me.

Here's another thing I had: a hatred of cubicles. When I worked in the corporate world, it was for a large company that personified everything in Office Space and The Office, minus the hotness that is John Krasinski. During one of the quarterly meetings, which consisted of everyone gathering like cattle in the cubicle hallways, someone in my department received an award for working there for 25 years. I became immediately depressed and remember thinking "you've come here five, sometimes six, days a week for 25 years? That's your life? No, thank you".

In addition to the hatred of cubicles, I had one of those life-altering experiences that changes your perspective on everything. In my early twenties I dealt with literal paralysis for about two and half years, and most days would wake up and not be able to walk or move my legs at all. Name a medical scan, I've probably had it. This little number had a domino effect on other parts of my life, resulting in losing almost all independence (which for a stubborn, strong-willed Scorpio is the touch of death) and is easily the lowest point of my life to date.

Like I said, that experience greatly shaped my perspective on life and whenever I get scared as an entrepreneur (which is all the time, since we're being real here), I can honestly say "it could be a lot worse." Also, if making a go of this being-my-own-boss-thing doesn't work out, then I'm back to the cubicle and I'm NOT about to let that happen.

So my advice for anyone who wants to start in the wedding industry is this:

  • Put your fears in perspective. If you try and fail, is it really the worst thing that could happen to you? Probably not. Your ego might be bruised, but hey, you can still walk.
  • Treat your company as a business, not as a job and definitely not as a hobby. 
  • Build margin right from the start. You should love your work; you should also love yourself enough to know that anything that ends in "-oholic" is not healthy. Plus, having margin means having room for doors to open and the time available to take on unexpected opportunities. The best opportunities often don't wait for your schedule to clear up. 
  • Think and dream big. Then dream bigger. If you can accomplish your dreams on your own, you are not dreaming big enough. 
  • You can (and should) learn from anybody and anything, but spend your money and your time learning from the real experts - people who have accomplished real things in business and who have a perspective that will help you grow (this doesn't necessarily mean they've been in business longer than you have). 
  • At some point you will have to take the leap and go out full time. It's called a leap of faith, not a leap of certainty, for a reason and these leaps are rarely, if ever, comfortable.  I do not necessarily recommend quitting your steady income, but if you wait for the time to be perfect, then you run the risk of winning a cheap gold-colored pin for 25 years of cubicle service. Perfect does not exist.  
What are your recommendations for people who want to get started in the wedding industry?

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