Let’s start with the one-liner – what is your company? What do you sell?
Wendy O’Donovan: Big Buzz
Big Buzz is an agency delivering focused marketing tactics and strategies for dental practices and senior living communities nationwide.
Tell us your origin story.
Wendy O’Donovan: In 2000, I started a freelance writing business, writing for marketing agencies and news outlets including The Hollywood Reporter. In 2003, I took a full-time job with a marketing agency for which I had been freelancing. While there, I learned about marketing strategy – the art of supporting teams in gathering research and thinking about marketing before doing marketing. The firm was fraught with organizational issues, namely in having hired the wrong talent and retained bad employees. My basic thought was, I think I can do this better. My vision was a focused healthcare marketing firm that was good to its team and thereby good to its clients. Everyone thrives. Today, my vision is a reality. We wake up wanting to come to work!
Did you need a lot of capital to start your business? How did you finance your business in the beginning?
Wendy O’Donovan: My company was self-funded to start. After my first year, I secured a corporate line of credit with a local bank to safeguard my business in case of a downturn. Eventually, we moved the business out of my home and into a commercial property that I bought with an SBA loan.
Was this an area for which you had passion before you started the business, or did you see a need and move to serve it?
Wendy O’Donovan: I am an expert writer and communicator at my core. I come from a long line of writers before me: my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather. I definitely have a passion for communications!
How has the business evolved over time?
Wendy O’Donovan: In 2018, we hit $1 million in revenues. In 2019, we did it again. Only 1% of women-owned businesses achieve this revenue milestone, so I readily share this because I love mentoring up-and-coming women who can do the same.
How did you grow? Tell us about a moment, or moments, in the early days that were “big moments” for the business. What moved the needle substantially?
Wendy O’Donovan: In my humble beginnings, about a year into business ownership, I got myself a business coach. In our first session together, she listened as I detailed my meager company’s financials and my vision for the future of my business. “Well congratulations!” she surprised me by saying. “You have a very good foundation there.” “I do?” I thought. But what she said next really stopped me in my tracks: “Now it’s time to hire some employees.” “Oh, no, no, no,” I shot back. “That was never my intention. I just want to stay small.” Looking back, that last line really makes me laugh. I now know that it’s actually harder to stay small and survive business ownership and that it makes much more sense (and is so much more fun) to scale, grow, and truly thrive. Sure, Rome wasn’t in a day. It’s all about taking that next big leap. Hire that assistant. Write that book. Take that business loan. Expand into that new market. Take that time away from the office. That’s all I did. I put one foot in front of the other and did the next brave thing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I weathered the storms knowing that the calm would return, and it always did. I’ve learned that the business is just a catalyst for fulfilling life dreams, just a vessel for carrying the team to their dreams. Leap into the boat! Ride the wave.
Every successful small business owner has to navigate the world of expansion. And choosing how to expand is just as important as choosing how NOT to expand. Tell us about forks in the road on your journey.
Wendy O’Donovan: In the first half of 2020, like many small business owners, we laid-off employees, we furloughed employees, we closed up our beautiful office, and headed home to work remotely, we made the tough choice to lease our commercial property to another company for 3 years to offset our costs, we ratcheted down our revenue goal for the year – it seemed the tough choices just kept coming. Even so, we never lost sight of long-term expansion plans. In that spirit, we rewrote our vision statement, we redeveloped our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis with a particular focus on opportunities, we delivered webinars to rapt audiences of thousands of people, we took government loans, we put the property on the market – we just kept forging forward. Now, we are hyper-focusing on growing our greatest assets to get back on track for long-term growth.
As you’ve grown, you’ve undoubtedly had to delegate. How did you tackle that challenge?
Wendy O’Donovan: Nine years ago, I hired an unpaid intern who today is our General Manager. I learned quickly to hire people smarter than me, get the right people in the right seats on the bus, train well and often, and let go of outcomes after delegating. We have a policy that is read every Monday morning to the whole team: “Every unit is clear on its purpose and acts only on the strategies that align with that purpose.” Enough said.
You know the axiom – no risk, no reward. Tell us about a time you took a big risk. Did it pay off? Did it fail? Or you had a completely different outcome than expected?
Wendy O’Donovan: “Yes, we will build you a website,” I promised the new client on the other end of the phone. By “we,” I meant my cat and me. At the time, I was in my guest bedroom with a used Mac and a cell phone – that was my office. The cat was my team. Call me crazy, but I used to walk into that room each morning and announce, “Good morning!” to no one but my friendly feline, and sometimes to an empty room if the cat had decided not to grace me with his presence. I believed that one day I would have a team to help me deliver the work. I believed that I would one day greet them happily each morning. And today, I do have that team and the honor to bid them a very good morning each workday! Every risk I have taken has paid off – either in dividends or life lessons.
Do you/did you have a co-founder or did you go at it alone? Tell us about that decision, and how that affected you as a leader.
Wendy O’Donovan: I never wanted to have a business partner until recently. It was very important to me personally to get to $1 million in revenue as the sole owner. Now that we have surpassed that milestone, I’d like to scale to $10 million over the next 10 years. I’m open to mergers, investors, and other creative ways to grow.
Have you ever considered taking on additional partners, venture funding, or bank money to grow the company, or have you always bootstrapped?
Wendy O’Donovan: While I have used corporate lines of credit here or there to weather a storm, I have largely grown the company organically. I would indeed be curious to explore taking on additional partners, venture funding or bank money to scale.
Tell us about some of your sacrifices along your small business journey.
Wendy O’Donovan: I have to sacrifice many of my perceived “great ideas.” “I have an idea!” I exclaim to my team. Their eyes glaze over and they grimace. Why? I’m distracted again. See, just a week prior I painstakingly laid out six initiatives on which they need to be hyper-focused in order to meet our goals. I broke each one down into its finite parts, assigned task forces among them, and told them, “No matter what, don’t take your efforts off of these six initiatives.” And here, just a few days later, I’m pitching my next book to them. “It’s going to be so fun!” I add, my favorite catchphrase for getting them on board with my zany ideas. “We can each write a chapter!” My next book is not one of the six initiatives. It’s not even in our annual plan! As an entrepreneur, I have a squirrely mind. I love to create things, and I rely on my team to carry through the details of the most important things. I’ve learned over the years that I have to let go of the rest of the things that pop into my mind
What is the most gratifying thing about what you do?
Wendy O’Donovan: The most gratifying thing about what I do is teaching my now 10-year-old daughter what it looks like to be a fully self-supporting, successful, and fulfilled woman. Today, for the fifth year in a row, she mailed our annual tax payments to the IRS and state. Each year, I tell her she’s part of creating our roads, our schools, our government. It’s amazing to watch her eyes light up with an understanding of how our world works.
Who is a leader or someone that you admire? Why?
Wendy O’Donovan: Nell Merlino, Founder, and CEO of Count Me In and creator of How did she make history? Nell created Take Our Daughters to Work Day, with the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1993, in which over 25 million people participated in the first two years. She also founded and ran Count Me In, a leading not for profit provider of inspiration and resources for women to grow their businesses. She was determined to change the fact that over 70% of all women-owned businesses make less than $50K a year in gross revenue. I, among hundreds of other women nationwide, have pitched my business in their flagship “Make Mine a Million” program, and I am one of many female business owners under her guidance who shattered the glass ceiling of growing their business revenues past $1 million, which only 1% of women do. She’s a force!
What is a secret weapon that you have that would surprise people?
Wendy O’Donovan: I put down the drink about 5 years ago, and have since then enjoyed a more vibrant, calm, and fulfilling life than I ever did in my 25 years of drinking. And trust me, I had a pretty damn good time in those 25 years. Nothing holds a candle to living a sober life.
If for this business, what would you be doing as a career right now?
Wendy O’Donovan: I would love to go back to school to become a family psychologist. I’m intrigued by mental and emotional health solutions, and the world needs a lot of help in those areas.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Wendy O’Donovan: In 10 years, I’d like to be sitting on the board of directors for Big Buzz and other healthcare organizations making a broad impact across communities and the nation.
Finish this sentence: “I would not be standing here today if not for ____”
Wendy O’Donovan: My team. I respect and admire each and every one of them for helping Big Buzz get where it is and go where it is going. Love ya’ll!
What’s one piece of advice that you would give your 18-year-old self?
Wendy O’Donovan: Relax, kiddo. Every little thing’s gonna be alright.