Hire an in-house bookkeeper right away and watch the finances as closely as they do. Early on, I left a lot to the “experts” but the experts will never care about your business as much as you do. Today, I can tell you the exact numbers on our balance sheet, our accounts payable, and employee expenses as of yesterday afternoon. Finances are the lifeblood of a company. I watch it all and want to understand it all.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Silver, Founder and CEO of Blue Door Communications. Blue Door is a Toronto-based PR and Digital Marketing agency, specializing in the hospitality sector. Since opening its doors, Blue Door has built and maintained a client roster containing the city’s top hotels, restaurants, bars, and hospitality groups. The agency employs twenty team members and offers its clients the full spectrum of communications services, including media relations, crisis communications, digital ad planning, social media management, and graphic design — all custom built for the hospitality industry. This week, Blue Door acquired digital marketing agency, PunchxPepper, instantly adding new expertise in the areas of graphic design and content creation to its growing team. The agency was incorporated in 2017 and was nominated for The Holmes Report 2019 Best PR Agency and took home 2018 Notable’s Best New Agency of the Year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?
I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, and while I certainly watched as they sacrificed to build a great company, I also saw the tremendous rewards that came with it. I was not just attracted to being a CEO, I was attracted to taking big risks, owning big decisions, and reaping the big rewards that would follow.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?
The fundamental difference between a CEO and other executives is that our role should be squarely focused on setting the strategy for the future of the company. No matter how hard it might be, we must avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day elements and tasks of the business. Instead, we need to be working on the big picture, asking tough questions, and shaping the overall values and standards of the business. We are the only ones held accountable for our success, growth, and decisions which means we are in a very unique position, different from all other executives and leaders inside.
What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?
Building Blue Door from the ground up was a challenge so large that I find it hard to articulate at times. Early on, it was 24–7 commitment with no time-outs, no vacations, and no room for error. I struggled with many things, from deciding on the services we would offer, to the types of candidates we would want to attract. Perhaps the hardest struggle was the decision to share equity in the business with my partners. They brought tremendous value to the table (anyone could see that) but it was hard for me to give away equity in a company I wanted to own entirely by myself.
It was a limiting thought, and one many entrepreneurs face, because we are usually (wrongly) convinced that only we can lead our start-up to success. Luckily, I learned that if I wanted strategic investors on board to fuel the plans I had for Blue Door, I had to share the company to get there. Today, I am proud that those people now make up our board of directors and advisory board. More than that, they are my strategic advisers, and it remains one of the best decisions I have made professionally for the company.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In my view, I don’t have challenges as a woman CEO, I just have challenges as a CEO. If I choose to see my gender as limiting in anyway, they will start to materialize. I do believe that we share a common struggle, that all CEO’s have to face. Both female and male CEOs struggle with the question of balance. Everything takes a backseat- friends, family, health, hobbies. In my personal opinion, I have no more or less time than a male CEO counterpart. The demand to be a good mother and a good wife is no different than a male CEO’s demand to be a good husband and father. People don’t have to agree with that, but that’s my philosophy and how I choose to run Blue Door.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?
Owning the decisions that I make. There is no one to double check the decision and there is no one higher up to vet if it’s the right one. The decisions that I make have serious and material impacts and win or lose, that is on me. Surprisingly, this has become the most exciting part of the job. When being a leader comes naturally, there is no anxiety in those decisions. You just know what has to be done and you do it.
What are the downsides of being a CEO?
Every moment is consumed by questions, thoughts, or ideas about the business. Both big and little things occupy space in my mind. What can we do better, faster, and with more quality? Did we make the right decision with a new hire? Did we need that extra office space? Will the shareholders buy into the company’s new vertical expansion plan? You constantly second-guess every decision and it can be all-encompassing at times. This is the biggest downside for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Over the past two years, I have seen a positive shift in the perception of PR as an industry, and I believe that it’s directly related to agencies finding ways to become more sophisticated and of course, more ROI-positive to our clients. I remember pitching a new franchise who was operating just four locations in Toronto. The client said they had a bad experience with another agency and they would need to be convinced that there is real ROI in agencies, not just “fluff”. I was determined to change their minds and was committed to showcasing true value. We launched a proof of concept campaign for 120 days and managed to hit every target and metric that we forecasted. Two years later, that franchise remains a client of Blue Door and they just opened their 14th location on the west coast.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Prior to opening Blue Door, I had a very poor experience at a restaurant and had left them a scathing review. The restaurant General Manager and I had a public back-and-forth, which went on for a week. To say it was a heated exchange would be an understatement. He finally agreed to reimburse me the entire dinner and I promised to never visit the restaurant again.
Shortly after starting Blue Door, I noticed that the same restaurant issued an RFP for a PR firm. I wanted to be invited to the table so I emailed the head office assuming that specific person wouldn’t remember who I was. I received a response from the same person (who was now the owner) that just said, “This is highly unlikely”. I was mortified. Today, Blue Door manages online restaurant reviews for more than 50 venues.
Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I once read a funny quote that said “As the CEO of a startup, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.” It always makes me laugh because I definitely didn’t think it would be easy, but I could never have anticipated how hard it was either. In my mind, the job had more perks — a big office, big travel, and fancy dinners. Sometimes it is like that, but mostly it’s late nights, strategizing our next move, ordering take out, and pouring over financials. At least for a two-year old company, this is the actual job I have.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?
Before Blue Door, I was a Senior Communications Associate for more than 10 years at a government relations firm. The CEO of that agency is one of the most respected and driven people that I have ever met. He built a company that truly puts people first and he has many traits that a CEO should have. If you are going to be a great CEO, you need to be tough-skinned but not insensitive, and have high character. If my employees perceive me as someone with high character, then I can create an environment that people want to work in. It’s what will help us hire and retain great talent. For me, this is the beginning and end of everything. It’s not enough for me to be smart and a good leader, I need to be a good person who they trust and want to work for.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be the hardest working person you know.
Who inspires you to be a great leader and why?
My team. They work so hard for Blue Door and sometimes the rewards are not as big as they deserve. They are honest, hardworking, and incredibly dedicated to this company. They are the foundation of this business and a true source of inspiration for me. The other day, two of our managers presented a competitor analysis to the team as we planned 2020, and I was blown away by how far they had come in two years. They are young but hungry, and I embrace that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That is an easy one. The first clients who gave us a shot when we had no client list, no portfolio, and no references. Assembly Chef’s Hall, Tequila Tromba, Gusto 54, and Basil Box are a few that come to mind. At the time, we had no business pitching them but we went to each meeting incredibly prepared, with strong campaign ideas that we wanted to execute on their behalf. We couldn’t charge the big-agency fees, so we had to be smart, nimble, and earn their trust in a short period of time. We worked hard and it paid off. Without these clients giving us the opportunity to work with them, I don’t know where we would be. This gave us the foundation to build our client base and build the agency’s foundation.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We treat our employees with the highest level of respect. Our team is young and I know that by treating them this way, they will continue to treat others in their future roles at our company (or another company) the same way. They are taught and see inclusiveness, diversity, and fairness in all of our dealings and we think this is how we give back.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each)
- It will take 10 x longer than you think and will cost you 5 x more than you expect. Make sure to give yourself more runway than you think (you’ll need).
- Hire an in-house bookkeeper right away and watch the finances as closely as they do. Early on, I left a lot to the “experts” but the experts will never care about your business as much as you do. Today, I can tell you the exact numbers on our balance sheet, our accounts payable, and employee expenses as of yesterday afternoon. Finances are the lifeblood of a company. I watch it all and want to understand it all.
- Get the money upfront: Two years ago,we trusted everyone and we often did the work without any commitment or deposits. In nearly every situation where we did the work without deposits, we lost money, time, and relationships.
- Take care of yourself first. At the beginning of Blue Door, everything took a backseat, including my health, and I vowed to never do it again. Without a healthy mind and body, I would not be a good CEO to the people around me.
- Keep good company: Who we align ourselves with as a company is critical. In the early days, I said yes to every client that would have me, but today we are more selective. It’s a two-way street- clients choose us but we also choose them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That is a tough question. I don’t think I need to inspire a movement, but I want to support organizations that are trying to get momentum for theirs. For me, that would be anything (and everything) that drives change in the right direction. Today, we live in a time of severe inequality and racial disparity that requires big movements with strong leaders who can shape public opinion and mobilize people at scale. These are the organizations that I want to support.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” I always think about this quote and always strive to hire people smarter than me in some aspect of our business. We should be hiring people so they can tell us what to do, we don’t hire people to tell them what to do.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Malcolm Gladwell. I could read his books all day. His ability to tell a powerful story amazes me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com