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Serena Holmes | Canada & Remote | Decisions!

I landed in the events industry through a referral when I was starting out in university. I was studying to be a broadcast journalist while working part time at a fitness centre. A member told me his friend’s girlfriend ran a promotional marketing agency and thought I’d be a good fit for it. I contacted her and set up an interview. I fell in love with the work and continued to work with her and a few other agencies part-time throughout the rest of university.

When I graduated from Ryerson, I learned very quickly that it would be difficult to get a job in my field unless I was willing to move to a small market for a few years before moving home. I was continuing to work part-time in promotions when the woman who ran Tigris, a new company I’d started with, asked me to come on board full time. She offered me partnership shortly after but given I was pursuing journalism, I said no. I had a close opportunity with AM 640 but after losing it, I finally took her up on partnership. This was about 1 year after I had graduated from university. A month later, we started booking events with Motorola and shortly after that, Rogers, who became our biggest client for several years. About 4 years into the business, my partner decided to leave the company for personal reasons. I was faced with a decision to buy her out, partner with another agency or cut our losses and walk away splitting our retained earnings. I felt like we had already developed a strong reputation and had consistent business so I decided to buy her out, just as the world was walking into a recession. It took 2 years altogether but I made it happen. We were faced with another big challenge in 2012 when we lost our biggest client. To help attract new business, we began investing in digital marketing and while we dipped in sales over the course of a couple years, we bounced back with a vengeance in 2014 and continued to grow steadily from there – until the pandemic in 2020. Due to government restrictions on gatherings, we lost a significant volume of business and are doing what we can to make it through until the pandemic passes.

What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?

How did the idea for your business come about? I actually didn’t start the business I now own but I did make a ton of changes to streamline and strengthen our brand identity and offerings in the industry. When I got involved, there were 3 different divisions specializing in marketing, event planning and event staffing. This was confusing from a branding perspective – especially after Tigris took off. It was also prohibitive when it came to costs to carry 3 bank accounts, file taxes for 3 incorporated businesses etc., We consolidated these which we feel helped contribute to our growth, along with our investment in SEO.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them? Adjusting from a partnership to a sole owner was a big adjustment. When I was brought into the company, I was strictly involved in operations – but I had to adapt to recruiting talent and bringing in new business. I took on employees after my partner left but I was still very much doing a bit of everything. It took time to learn how to delegate so I wasn’t spread too thin and could focus on what matters most – sales.

What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read? I have been on maternity over the past year so I actually haven’t had much time for reading! This said, over the years some of my favourite entrepreneurship books are “The Rules” books like “The Rules of Management by Richard Templar. There are a whole series. I found them to be very helpful.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?

How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight? Overall, my family has been supportive. My husband has probably been impacted the most, especially early on. Since we are in events and many happen evenings/weekends, there have been times that we have plans and I am pulled in to troubleshoot various situations. Thankfully, as long as you have internet and a smart phone, most things can be dealt with online vs. being somewhere in person.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success? I think there are a number of factors but one that clients really seem to appreciate is our sense of urgency. We actually land a lot of business because we are the first company to reply and get a quote over. We try to make sure our communication is quick and the process is easy/seamless. We have to build a lot of our relationships through phone and email so clients love that they don’t have to sit around and wait for answers.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur? There are plenty of things! Some of the top however would’ve been taking advantage of mentoring, SEO and a bookkeeper much sooner. I was only 23 when I first got involved with Tigris so I had a ton to learn. Securing a mentor sooner would’ve helped me a lot. We didn’t start investing in SEO until 2012 which was 8 years into our business. If we had have done it earlier, we could’ve grown much more quickly. Lastly, I didn’t hire a bookkeeper until 10 years in so I wasted a lot of time I could’ve been spending on sales, doing payroll or reconciling monthly accounts. These 3 things all coincided fairly close together around our 8-10 year mark so if I’d thought of it 2-3 years in, we could’ve probably gotten further ahead much sooner.

What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally? In light of covid, it’s tricky to give advice to an entrepreneur right now. Getting into business for yourself during the current situation would really depend on the line of work. For us, we were able to scale back our team and later, get out of our lease early, to significantly stretch our retained earnings. Our sales have literally dropped over 90% over 2019 but we are getting by since we took advantage of government programs available and cut back on our expenses. We went 6 months with no work and are finally booking some things now. It’s been a challenging situation but I think we are much better off than some other businesses who have actually went under or could any day now. When you work for yourself, you have to make decisions, even hard one’s, quickly. If I hadn’t acted fast when the pandemic hit, we could be in a very different place right now.

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