CEO, Kelly Fletcher PR
Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?
Kelly Fletcher: Gosh, I don’t even know where to start… The funny thing about success is that it’s so elusive. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, have this much in revenue, have these clients, and have these many employees I would have said “Absolutely, that’s success! That exceeds my wildest dreams.” But when you get there, when you live it day-by-day, you don’t just say “this is it.” Success becomes an elusive thing because it’s never enough – and I’m not talking about money – you can never have enough business, you always continue to grow and feed your business.
Success for me is first figuring out what I want for it to look like. I guess there’s no real definition for it. You have to define your own. I’m really hard on myself so while to an outsider it might look like I’m very successful, I may think that I’m only marginally successful because I know I can always do better. Those are the demons I live with – it’s a part of being an overachiever. I started this business as a means to an end. It wasn’t a driving passion that I had to start a company. I just wanted out of the corporate environment. I’m very grateful to my then full-time job because it provided me with contacts that generated several clients, allowing me to kick-start my business. When I made the leap, I had three clients with one-year contracts so I had a good launching point.
I’m a creative spirit, so I hate having to live by someone else’s rules and schedules. I wanted to be judged on the quantity and quality of my work not on my sitting in a chair from 8 to 5 or going to meaningless meetings. Starting my own business wasn’t about money or even about being super passionate about what I did every day but it was about having the latitude to make your own timetable. I wanted to have the flexibility to take the time I needed as a single mom to raise my only child. I wanted to be able to have Spring Break off, to stay at home with my kid when he was sick and not to feel guilty about it or ask for permission. For me it’s been about creating my own reality and a set of rules I live by that are my own – it’s about having autonomy.
It’s a lot of pressure and there have been many times when I’ve thought this was too much, and I wanted to give up. Your mind will tell you: “you should really go back to getting a job” because in some ways having a regular job is easier – no risk, you know what to expect, you generally know how success is measured, you go do your job and then you leave. You don’t have to take it home with you and live it every day. The trade-off for creating your own reality is that sometimes it’s really hard and there’s nobody there to push you. You have to have a lot of self-motivation and will power to keep getting up every day even when you’re beaten down, even when past due accounts receivable are looming and you’re struggling to make payroll. When you have your own business, there’s always something.
OH: What do you wish you’d known before you started your own business? What advice would you give to others venturing out on their own?
KF: I’m actually glad that I didn’t know more than I did at the time. If I had known then what I know now, how hard it was, if I had understood the risk I took, maybe I would have been too intimidated to try it. So I think that there are times when naiveté is a plus when it comes to entrepreneurship. Just jump in and do it.
I wish I would have gotten my financials in order sooner. For the first few years, I was operating by the principle that “if we have money in the bank that’s great and if we don’t, we don’t.” Then, I hired a business coach and I’d say that that’s a huge reason why I’ve been able to be successful. We more than doubled in size as a result, experiencing a 20% year-over-year growth over the past five years, which is significant in our industry. I wish I would have known to seek outside counsel sooner. There are coaches out there that can help, whether that’s through Knoxville Entrepreneurial Center, my business coach Kevin Kragenbrink, or the Propel Program through the Chamber of Commerce – there are lots of resources that I could have tapped into but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
You have to be willing to learn and understand that you don’t get to do only what you’re passionate about all the time. You have to focus on the business aspect of things if you want to run a profitable business. I love to create, write, and pitch stories but I’m not always doing that. I hate numbers but I have to run my business by the numbers, otherwise I’m not going to be successful. You also have to have your processes in place and hire good people. It took a while but with the help of my business coach, we have built solid processes, we have a plan, we have talented people working here. I’m not that much in the trenches anymore, which frees up my time to do higher level business activities like work on strategy or mentor others.
OH: What do you think was the most important contributor to your success?
KF: This is going to sound ridiculous but I think it’s my background in performing arts. I went to school on a vocal performance scholarship and all through my twenties, I was a working singer. I lived in New York and I did theatre and opera. When you’re in the performing arts industry, as a singer, your instrument is your body. When you go on auditions and you get rejected over and over or you get criticized, it gives you a lot of strength and perspective on how to approach things in the business world. You’re not gonna win them all and you can’t take things personally; business is business. That training of getting knocked down so many times and having to keep getting back up was actually the perfect training for me as an entrepreneur.
OH: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your life – business or otherwise?
KF: Personally, you know my life for the past 18 years always revolved around my “little child” who’s now graduating from high school. I’m very proud to have been a single mom raising a son and having him see that women are equals, that we are forces to be reckoned with. He grew up with a strong, independent woman and he’s seen my ups and downs as a business owner. He’s lived it. So it’s fulfilling to me to know that he now aspires to have his own business and he’ll also be selective about who he’ll choose as a mate because he’s gonna want someone who has her stuff together, you know.
Professionally, I think I’ve grown so much by being a business owner, learning how to handle situations, how to lead people, how to motivate them, and build a team, how to create a culture of accountability. We call each other out on not living our values or our culture: transparency, respect, accountability, service and quality. We try to live that culture, so if somebody is not living up to it, we address our cultural failures privately and work on getting back on track. I feel fulfilled for being able to create and maintain a strong and positive culture for professionals. I am happy to be surrounded by co-workers who want to be here and by clients who treat us well. We don’t work 60-hour weeks, we have a good life-work balance. To be able to create that kind of opportunity for others, to give people jobs that they like and find rewarding – that is very fulfilling!
OH: Not everybody gets dealt the same cards. You have to work with whatever or around whatever life hands you. What hurdles do you feel like you were able to overcome in your journey to success?
KF: I think people have a lot of misconceptions about me. They find out that I was a singer and former Miss North Carolina and they think that I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually grew up with divorced parents. My dad was a teacher, my mom was a bank teller. If it weren’t for my grandparents, we wouldn’t have been able to do very much at all. I owe my dance and voice lessons to my grandparents. They paid for my prom dress. We weren’t poor – well, the funny thing is that we were probably kind of poor but we didn’t know it; it’s just the way things were. We were latch-key kids: I came back from school, got off the bus then kept my brother and sister until my parents came home. I was the babysitter, I knew how to clean the house, how to do laundry. It isn’t like we went hungry but there were plenty of times when there wasn’t much in the refrigerator until my mom got paid. So I grew up with having enough but just enough to make me “hungry” for more, to make me want to push myself to succeed.
Other than my dad, I was the first one in my family to go to college and I went to school on almost a full scholarship. My parents didn’t pay for my college; I paid for it through scholarships and my Miss North Carolina money. I’ve overcome plenty of hurdles – as lower middle class, we weren’t always pushed to do or want more. I wanted to go the North Carolina School of the Arts. “Oh, but that’s so far away,” my family said. It was an hour and half away… I grew up in a really country family, so even my accent has been a hurdle. Money has been a hurdle, self-esteem has been a hurdle, even my education – I have a degree in music and I’m running a business. All of those hurdles motivated me even more to be successful than if I had grown up having everything from the start. Nobody gave me a dime – I made it work. As a woman especially I’m really proud of that. I didn’t get money out of my divorce. I’ve made it all happen on my own.
OH: What’s next for you?
KF: I am thinking about starting another company that can make money for me while I sleep because if you are in professional services, you live and die by billable hours. I think about what that would be, what would I do differently, and how I could apply the lessons I learned from my current business.
I’m also considering teaching as a business coach or motivational speaker. One of my bigger passions in life is helping advance women in business, so if I can figure out a way to weave that into whatever I’m doing even more, that would be great. I do have something to bring to the table due to my experience, so I’d love to help.
I thought about writing a motivational book about my journey and the lessons I learned. I’ll tell you a funny story. In our kitchen, we had this chalkboard. I taught my son what a quarter was and then we used to write down our quarterly goals. One time I wrote on the board “get a place at the beach” as one of my goals. Shortly thereafter, one of my friends called and said: “oh, I am so excited for you that you are getting a beach house.” I figured that my son had told them about our goals. Of course, at the time I was barely paying my bills… But the lesson was that if it’s on the goal list, it’s going to happen, right? So now I just need to put this on the list: “take a summer off, go to the beach, and write.” Sometimes I forget that I could totally do that!
I don’t know – I’m really at a transitional point in my life now. I’m a bit too young to retire but my son is off to college, so I have all these possibilities available to me. I thought about moving to New York and opening an office there – I love that city and I would love to live there again. So far, I have created my reality but it has been revolving around my child. Now I am free to pursue whatever I want and I love a challenge – so it’s time to recreate my own reality.