Jeanne Frazer is the owner of vitalink, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based marketing and advertising agency specializing in branding and strategic plans for companies, including those in the education space, non-profits and law firms. Frazer attributes the business’ success to its conservative approach to growth and a passion to move the needle for its clients.
How did you get started with your business?
I worked in television for a number of years for FOX and NBC. I knew the whole time I was working for them that I wanted to be able to be more involved in a client’s business, to really be a bigger part of helping them become successful. I always knew I wanted to start up an agency where I could help clients more and could bring more ideas to them to be a bigger part of making them successful.
Taking the leap to actually start the business probably happened a few years earlier than I might have liked. My leap was somewhat of a forced leap because the company I was working for had been bought out by another company. I was doing well within the company, but I didn’t love the management style. It helped me realize it was time to make a change.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
We funded through selling stock in our company. I approached some people who I had known over the years and asked them to invest in my business.
We’ve taken out a couple different loans over the years. That’s one area where I feel like we might need help. We’ve tried to keep our growth manageable so we didn’t have to do as much of that. However, looking back, one of the things I might spend more time learning is what types of funding sources are out there to be able to plan the group a little better.
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Who was your first customer?
My first customer was one I had worked with for a number of years, Samaritan’s Purse, which is Franklin Graham’s international relief organization. I had worked with a gentleman up in Boone, North Carolina, which is their headquarters. When I opened up the agency, I called him up and said, “I’ve started up my own firm. Here’s what I’d like to be able to help you do.” He gave us a shot. Not only did we get to buy the market I was in, but we got to buy other markets for him, and then expanded our business from there.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I looked for help in other places. SCORE was one of the things I did – It’s basically a bunch of retired folks who help people who are starting with businesses. That’s a free resource in our area, so I went and talked with them about starting up. One of the biggest things they said was to make sure to hire an accountant and an attorney, which I did.
I was also very lucky to have my father’s advice and input on day-to-day things. One of my investors had also run a Fortune 500 company – She provided some good information. I had a lot of sources that I could go to and get some help along the way.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
When I was first starting the business, there was another person who was working to start it with me. She was a very creative, amazing person. But, as we got further in it, I realized that her approaches to business were very different. She wanted a little more control over the business, but I felt that I was putting in a lot of time and effort and funding, so I wanted more control over the business. That’s one thing I really learned from even though it ended up probably working out better than had we continued to be partners. It was a hard lesson, but that’s how it needed to be.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
I think keeping things small and manageable was smart, so I didn’t have as many cash-flow issues month to month. We used interns and we really didn’t get in over our head with loans.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
For me, it’s about making an impact for our clients. I really love when we get in and we’ve got a client with an issue that we need to help solve. I love seeing how our group comes together to help solve that problem. Watching that work is very rewarding.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
The most difficult thing can be trying not to get distracted wearing so many hats in a small business. From doing client work to managing and growing the business to doing things with accounting, it’s a difficult thing to keep a balance in that.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
There are a lot of things that surprise me. It’s a lot harder than you would think going in, but it’s also much more rewarding. I always knew I wanted to run my own business, but how much you get involved in it and like it is surprising.
The business has almost become like a living, breathing, growing child. Like with many children, the business did not end up where I really thought it would in the beginning, but part of that was watching what was happening while we were growing and organically moving in the directions that really felt right and seemed to fit our team at the time, versus having a predetermined notion of what the business should look like and sticking to that. It’s been a surprise to see what the business grew up to be versus what I thought it would be.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
My father. Even though he did not step out and start a business on his own, what he was able to accomplish in helping other people run their companies was pretty amazing. Getting advice from him and seeing what he did in his day-to-day life was really something that was really important to me. It actually changed the face of our relationship and brought us even closer. He is someone I really admire.
What I’ve Learned
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
- When you get started on your business, you can get really stressed into making sure everything gets done for your clients. But if you don’t spend time working on your business instead of in your business, you’re not going to go far enough. Really make sure that you carve out time to take on your business as your own client.
- If you don’t do some things well – like if you don’t know how to get loans, or if you’re not good at marketing, or if you’re not a lawyer – go out and hire those professionals to help you. You’ll make a lot more mistakes on your own, and that could end up costing you more than what you would have saved by doing it yourself.
- Really look at what your strengths are. For me, one of my strengths is to really be creative and see a big picture. Because I love creating and the energy and atmosphere around it, in the beginning, I put a lot of people around me to work in my business who were like me, who were creative and Type A. We had a lot of great energy. But we didn’t have enough people to make sure we had a solid process. If you’re a creative person, make sure you have process people there to help you accomplish things. If you’re a process person, you may want to have some people who are visionaries to help you grow.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
I don’t know that there is. Sometimes you’re meant to go through the path you went through, all the good stuff and the bad stuff. If you know certain things, you might not do it or you might think differently about it. I’m pretty happy with where we are right now, so that learning process was perfect.
About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.