Last month I was honored to receive the 2017 Business Woman of the Year Award from the Women Business Owners Alliance, an organization that I've been a part of for several years. It was a wonderful celebration that I was happy to share with my family, my WBOA friends and many supporters who came to honor professional women who are making a difference here in Western MA.
I spoke that night about something we, as women and as entrepreneurs, struggle with frequently -- balancing the passion we feel about our business with our personal and family life. I've been asked by a few people to publish the speech, so here it is.
Remember The Rocks
Good evening everyone and thank you Jen for your warm introduction.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Women Business Owners Alliance for choosing me as the 2017 Woman of the Year. You are a remarkable group of women and I am proud to call you my friends.
I’d also like to thank my fellow Board of Directors for their wonderful leadership, guidance and friendship. This is an exciting time for WBOA and I’m looking forward to all the things we can accomplish in the coming year. On behalf of all the nominees and award recipients, I’d like to thank our guests for accepting the invitation to join us tonight to help us celebrate. Finally, I want to thank my family, my husband Sam, my daughter Stephanie, my daughter Jocelyn and her fiancé Logan, for being at my side tonight. I love you all.
When you sat down you may have noticed the little bag on many of your seats. It is my gift to you tonight and I hope its meaning will become apparent.
I’d like to start by reading you a short story that I found online. You can find anything on the internet! I think it fits well with what I’d like to share with you tonight so please indulge me.
A philosophy professor stood before his class with some items on the table in front of him. When the class began, without any words he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar. He then proceeded to fill it with small rocks, about 2 inches in diameter.
He then asked the class if the jar was full. They agreed that it was indeed full.
The Professor then picked up a box of small pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.
He then again asked the class if the jar was full. They nodded in agreement.
The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand of course filled up all the remaining space in the jar.
He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “yes”.
“Now”, said the professor, “I want you to assume that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your spouse and marriage, your children, and your health – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
The pebbles are the other things that have priority in your life – like your business, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff. Your lowest priority.”
“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same can be said for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on your lowest priorities, the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are most important to you.
Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Now, while you can, take your spouse out to dinner and a movie. There will always be time to work, clean and maintain the house, entertain your friends, and enjoy your hobbies.
Take care of the rocks first, your life’s foundation. The things that really matter. Set your top priorities and stick to them. The rest is just sand."
As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to spend hours working tirelessly in and on our businesses. Each new idea, service or product gives us incredible energy, along with a lot of sleepless nights.
I grew up learning about the joys and pitfalls of self employment first hand. My Dad was self employed and owned an insurance agency in a small town in northern Vermont. The agency was located in the front of our home and it seemed to me that it was ALWAYS open. If the door to the agency was locked as we sat down to enjoy our dinner, customers would just walk up to the porch off the kitchen and knock, hoping to drop off a premium payment or some paperwork. Dad would always invite them in, saying it was no problem. Every time the fire station alarm went off, Dad would stop what he was doing and walk up the street to see if one of his customers was affected and needed him. A barn fire, a lost home. This meant, of course, that our family activities sometimes took a back seat until his customer’s situation was handled.
When I looked at my Dad, I saw a man who was deeply rooted in his community, who was respected for his volunteerism and leadership, and who loved his family very much. He charted his own course to help his family live financially secure and I admired him.
He took care of his rocks first.
My Mom was also a strong role model for me. As the next to youngest of 9 children, she left home to become a nurse, attending one of the nation’s first 4-year Registered Nurse programs located in Providence Rhode Island. Her career as a nurse spanned many years, becoming Supervisor of Nurses at the local hospital. She nursed everyone and was never sick.
Her life changed abruptly though when my Dad had his first of three heart attacks. She left nursing, got licensed as an insurance agent, and joined him in the family business. This was her effort to help relieve some of the stress that doctors felt may have caused his heart attack. It took a lot of courage to do what she did and I admired her for her strength, her love of family and her resilience.
She cared for her rocks first.
Coming upon my 45th high school reunion this year I was looking at my yearbook and noticed the saying I had written under my senior picture. Wait for it. It’s heavy.
“Never be so tied down to the rules of the game that you cease to be an individual.”
Where did I come up with that? Maybe it was an early warning sign of pending entrepreneurship. I actually left high school a semester early, after designing a program that would allow me to teach music in a neighboring school district during the spring semester. You see, I thought I was going to be a music teacher and I was anxious to leave the drama of high school behind and do what I wanted to do.
After graduating from college with my music degree, also a semester early, I took a long-term substitute teacher position in a rather tough junior high school. My office was located in a boy’s bathroom. I traveled the halls with my music books and record player in a shopping cart with a sign that said $100 fine if you remove the cart from the supermarket. Apparently I was the only one who thought that was strange. By the end of the year, I learned that the previous music teacher would not be coming back and was still recovering from his “breakdown”. I knew then that I would not be applying for the permanent position and couldn’t wait to leave. My lifelong goal of becoming a music teacher changed. Thankfully, my parents never told me I’d wasted my college education.
I must have inherited the insurance gene from my Dad. My first introduction to self-employment was actually a commission based gig (that’s a musician term) selling life insurance to college seniors. I liked being able to set my own schedule and I found that I was good at consultative or needs-based selling. To me it wasn’t selling at all. I was educating and finding solutions to problems. I eventually took a salaried position with a financial services agency when Sam and I got married.
It was there that I discovered 3 things: One, I loved marketing, two, I loved working with small businesses and three, I hated cold-calling. There had to be way to get people to call ME first.
So I created the agency’s first newsletter. It was 2 sided, printed on legal sized paper, included an atrocious amount of clip art and was snail mailed. I developed a niche marketing strategy based on cross marketing agency services to non benefited university employees. Soon the phone began to ring. No more cold calling!
I successfully built the agency’s health insurance book of business from 2 plans to over 200, created an affiliate marketing plan for retired professors, added several new products and created the agency’s very first website.
I was a good employee, managed 5 brokers, contributed to the growth of the agency, but I was always frustrated by the length of time it took to implement some of the things I wanted to do. After 13 years of “being tied down to the game” I began looking at starting my own business. It took me 3 more years of weighing the pros and cons, countless discussions with my family, talking with mentors and friends before I decided I was ready. I gave my boss notice that I would be leaving on Dec. 31st giving me 4 months to hire and train my replacement.
A week later on Sept. 11, 2001 the world changed.
What was I thinking starting a business in such uncertain times? Part of me wanted to turn back and be that good employee again and forget about the dream of independence. The other part of me said, don’t worry about things I had no control over and just do it.
I opened the doors to my new office in December as planned, founding the first for sale by owner real estate advertising service in Western Massachusetts.
During the next 3 months I taught myself how to become a magazine publisher. I wrote content, created layouts, edited images and improved my graphic design skills.
I dug into my educator roots by holding workshops to teach home sellers how to be successful when selling “by owner”. I brought in experts like real estate attorneys, appraisers and home inspectors and I taught the marketing piece.
Together we taught success.
As many of you know, being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. My business almost closed in its first month. My first magazine was printed and delivered to a local newspaper for insertion into the Sunday edition. I got a phone call from the editor saying my publication had been refused at the loading dock. They determined that my magazine didn’t conform to their advertising policy. As a competitor, the newspaper was afraid of a possible backlash from local real estate agents who were the bread and butter for the classified section.
Now what was I supposed to do? My advertisers had trusted me to make them successful. I was frozen with the phone in my hand for a few minutes and cried. Then I decided that this would NOT be my last day in business so I called a competitor, a local family owned newspaper, and asked for their help. They immediately sent a truck over, picked up my 30,000 magazines and inserted them in their publication the following day. That gesture was life changing. Small businesses support each other and I was eternally grateful.
I learned very quickly that the publishing world and the real estate world were both pretty cut-throat industries. As word spread about the success of my service, I learned that in certain locations our magazines were being defaced, were buried on our racks by other magazines vying for free space and we found magazines tossed into the trash. My husband Sam offered to take on the distribution role and his competitive nature took over, identifying the problem areas, waiting to resupply until the competition left, unburying our magazines whenever needed. It wasn’t easy but we knew we were making an impact in the region and our advertisers were thrilled with their success.
The impact that my business had on my family was somewhat harder to gauge. I know there were many times that Sam wished he could enjoy his early retirement from teaching without loading boxes of magazines in his car. I don’t think that Joc and Steph really knew what I did as they were quite young. I remember explaining to Steph that in my first eight months in business I had helped people save almost a million dollars selling their own homes. I was pretty proud of that success. She looked at me with wide eyes and asked, “So WE have a million dollars?”
I then had to explain that WE didn’t actually have that money, my customers kept the money and that if I had been a real estate agent who had all of those listings, that’s what the agent would have made.” She looked at me very seriously then replied logically, “Then why aren’t YOU a real estate agent?” Clearly, I had to think of a better way of explaining my value proposition.
Over the next several years the marketing landscape changed at lightening speed. The Internet changed everything and I found that in order to remain competitive I needed to learn how to harness that power.
The Internet leveled the playing field for private home sellers. I moved our advertisers to an online format, added email marketing to stay in touch with workshop attendees who weren’t quite ready to sell. When social media came on the scene I was an early adopter of those tools as well. Things were going well until the real estate market began tetering. In 2008, I started a second business in anticipation of the road ahead.
My new business, Mass Marketing Resources, allowed me to once again work with small businesses, this time helping them learn about email marketing and social media. As the real estate market continued to collapse, I held onto my belief that everything would be OK although advertising revenue kept declining.
One thing entrepreneurs often have difficulty with is knowing when to let go of something they have loved. I should have closed the real estate side of my business earlier. That was not fair to my family and I regret that.
Another lesson learned about remembering to take care of the rocks first, before the pebbles and sand.
Since joining WBOA, I have become more conscious of work life balance. Maybe it’s that we have so many gifted holistic practitioners in our midst. Last year I turned 62 which was difficult birthday. I’d lost my mom to cancer when she was 62. Her life was filled with caring for others, both professionally as a nurse and as a mom. In the end I do feel that stress played a big part in the loss of her good health. So I did something I never thought I would. I had a spiritual reading done and it was eye opening and heart opening.
I took another look at that mayonnaise jar filled with rocks, pebbles and sand and began identifying ways to find better balance.
I stopped taking my laptop to the beach in the summer, didn’t answer the phone as much on the weekends, and made more decisions based on whether they felt “light” or “heavy” rather than “should I” or “shouldn’t I” do something. This new way of thinking was another helpful lesson learned from a speaker at a WBOA workshop. I gave up my role as an educator and professional speaker for Constant Contact this year to free up more time to volunteer and to be available to help Jocelyn and Logan plan for their upcoming December wedding.
I now have more time to work with clients, take on new interesting projects, continue volunteering, and still teach occasionally. Would I have gotten to this point without WBOA? Maybe, but it would have been a lot harder.
So I leave you with this.
Please hold onto this little bag of rocks, pebbles and sand and think of your own mayonnaise jar. It’s filled with possibilities, choices and decisions. The choices we make will impact our lives, our families lives and those around us. The sand sure feels good under our feet, but remember to pick up and care for the rocks first. Thank you.
Liz Provo, Mass Marketing Resources.