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Selling Your Soul: The Personal Sacrifices of the Entrepreneur

Paula L. Jagemann, Founder and Director, eCommerce Industries, Inc. (eci2)

I think in terms of press releases. I don't try to, it just happens. When I evaluate a deal, strike a partnership, win a new customer, I envision it in a headline. "eci2 Raises $42 Million of Venture Capital"—good headline. "eci2 loses key customer"—bad headline.

And of course, the everyday headlines "Paula Jagemann Chooses Salmon over Steak." No matter how you slice and dice it public relations is a powerful, yet, often overlooked tool for the entrepreneur. And I learned just how powerful it can be when I started one of the first online office products Web sites back in 1998, OnlineOfficeSupplies.com.

It is hard to remember that far back, as if nine years ago was an eternity. But if you try really hard, you will remember Amazon was still in its infancy—naysayer's didn't have them lasting past Y2K. It was also a time before Office Depot, Staples, and OfficeMax had any online presence at all.

They had informational Web sites, but not online sales engines. Like most bricks and mortar operations (I've been waiting to use that term again for some time) it was hard for them to deter profitable "foot-traffic" from frequenting their stores-negating impulse purchases (you just had to have that two foot-stack of neon Post-It Notes didn't you?) for faceless online transactions. Losing sales and being forced to post one national retail price for all of their products seemed a bridge too far. So, they became ostriches' with their heads in the sand.

This, I realized, was a huge opportunity. While I only knew the office products industry as a consumer, after intense research I decided to move swiftly and establish the first online super store. In August of 1998 OnlineOfficeSupplies.com was launched, with much fanfare.

While not an office products expert, I was an Internet savvy entrepreneur having worked at UUNET as one of its early employees in Investor & Public Relations and as chief of staff to the CEO. As it would turn out-public relations was the catalyst in driving traffic to my Web site, not just our marketing campaigns and feet on the street.

Prior to the launch of the Web site, I drafted a press release touting its features and ease of use—after all the Web site was what was being introduced and marketed. When it came time to issue the press release, I engaged a McLean, VA-based public relations firm, called The Merritt Group, which I had used previously at UUNET. They looked at the release and marveled at the boilerplate which mentioned UUNET's CEO was a board member. They said that specific information (i.e., his support of the company) and not just a Web site's features should be made a more prominent element of the press release, not hidden in the body of the boilerplate.

I was confused. Who cared who was on the board? Wasn't it the features of the Web site, our competitive prices, no sales tax, free delivery that was more important than a list of friends and family? After all, I had worked with the CEO from UUNET for ten years and to me he was just, John. I had forgotten how important it is to have powerful friends.

Twenty minutes later, after I had called in some favors, rewritten the release and had it issued—OnlineOfficeSupplies.com quickly received national attention. Not so much because paper clips are sexy (they aren't), but, by the caliber of board members.

As The Wall Street Journal said "with a blue chip board of directors," such as Mory Ejabat (Founder Ascend), John Sidgmore (COO MCI WorldCom), Dan Rosen (former direct report to Bill Gates at Microsoft), we quickly rose to prominence in both the online world and the office products industry as a whole. The lesson here is rolodexes are extremely powerful things.

Yet, besides the "blue chip" board, The Merritt Group fixated on some additional unique elements of the company, and its founder—me. They helped to mold me into a very saleable entity. Not only was the company well funded and "blue chip" from the get-go, it was started and run by a woman who was previously a secretary. A woman who was still going to college at night and on weekends. A woman who grew up poor, yet at age 28 became a self made multi-millionaire.

With The Merritt Group's help and understanding of not just my company but of me as in individual, they embarked on an aggressive awareness campaign. They sold not only me, my story, but more importantly our products. For each time I appeared in a magazine, paper, or spoke at conference as a female entrepreneur, people went to the Web site and bought products.

I appeared on CNN, Fox, 48 Hours, and in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Digital South, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, Chief Executive Magazine, Internet Week, Computer Reseller News, Working Women, and my personal favorite Ladies Home Journal.

I was even a chapter in the book Dotcom Diva. But all of this media attention was not without its sacrifices. The attention helped drive traffic to and generate sales for OnlineOfficeSupplies.com, but it also was an imposition on my personal life.

At first, I will admit, it was fun. I'd clip the articles and send them to family members. Periodically, I was recognized at a restaurant or on the street. I felt famous. But like the peeling back of an onion, the press wanted more and more. It wasn't good enough to just have gone from rags to riches; they wanted to know how much. It wasn't good enough to know my mom worked two jobs most of my adolescent life to feed and clothe us; they wanted to know how bare the cupboards were. To keep the PR machine running, there just had to be more to the story.

I had a number of hurdles to overcome. I highlighted my family's impoverished beginnings and the shame that went along with it. I had to acknowledge the fact that despite my mom's best efforts, there was simply not enough money for college books, let alone tuition—the humiliation of not being a college graduate was a painful one. (I did graduate Cum Laude.) My husband and our families saw our net worth plastered in every article. It went on and on.

The "rags to riches, secretary to CEO," female-entrepreneur who challenged a predominantly male industry tag lines followed me everywhere. I read with interest how difficult my life had been, and how much I had overcome. Then shame turned to pride—I realized I had really survived so many odds. Other entrepreneurs, with similar stories sent me e-mails, sought my advice, and generally were inspired by my success. People loved the "underdog wins all" facet to my story and for many they wanted to create their own happy ending. Even today, retired and a first-time mom, people send me e-mails about the turns their lives have taken and the risks they took because they saw this underdog win.

Selling of yourself, along with your products, is something most entrepreneurs just have to get used to. You can either use your past, its uniqueness to your advantage, or hide it. The decision is yours. For me at the time revenue was king and the negatives that accompanied the public eye were just part of the price I had to pay to help the company succeed.

In addition to the media efforts, The Merritt Group also took advantage of another lesser known PR tool: Awards. They entered us in almost every pertinent local or national competitive recognition race. From Washington, DCs "Fast 50," to Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year, and to any and every woman-oriented event in between—we were there. We were Microsoft's ecommerce solution of the year, beating out 3,000 other firms. We received Bill Gate's vote for the Computerworld and Smithsonian Entrepreneur of the Year, and did a one-on-one interview with the man himself.

We won industry awards too. We were recognized as one of the one-hundred people to watch in the first year we entered the office products industry, something that had never been done before. Our software and Web site became a hot commodity and we began to run Web sites for other office products dealers. This helped us to shift our business model from selling paperclips over the Internet, to selling software to the 15,000 independent office products dealers in the United States and United Kingdom.

All of these efforts raised the visibility of our company to the general masses and more importantly to our stakeholders. Our customers loved the endorsements these awards provided—for they stamped us as a "' company not just any fly-by-night "dot.com." The recognition helped us to hire fantastic employees who wanted to be part of this shooting star. We went out and raised more venture capital, $90 million in fact, and revenues shot from zero to $18 million in just eighteen short months. I cannot point to many marketing campaigns, brochures, or advertisements that benefited OnlineOfficeSupplies.com more broadly then did straight public relations.

So as an entrepreneur you have some choices to make—a lot of choices to make. But do not discount the impact public relations can have on your business, your revenue and ultimately on you. Make public relations an integral part of your business plan and marketing efforts. Find the firm that can get you and your firm the most visibility and if need be, be prepared, to sell yourself right along with it.

© 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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