Opinion: Stay true to what you do best, entrepreneur says


The following are excerpts from a conversation between business owner Martha McCarthy and Jeff Prouty at The Prouty Project. It’s part of an occasional opinion series on BringMeTheNews, in partnership with Prouty, featuring insights from business leaders.

Martha McCarthy, co-owner of The Social Lights, started her business with partner Emily Pritchard during their senior year of college. McCarthy, 25, will be celebrating the three-year anniversary of The Social Lights, a Minneapolis-based social media and digital marketing agency, this year:

Prouty: How did you decide you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

McCarthy: I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since I can remember. In eighth grade I ran a “kids camp” babysitting venture and was pretty full of ideas from that point on. In college, I decided to study entrepreneurship, passing on other “practical” business and journalism degree programs. That really put me in the entrepreneurial spirit – being surrounded by like-minded students, hearing stories from serial entrepreneurs about their endeavors. I was fascinated by it and so ready to launch something.

How did you decide on social media as the focus area?

Personal interest and timing. When Facebook launched business pages and Twitter was relatively new, I had a summer internship where I was tasked with monitoring social media for a large event. I was so amazed by the information the software was able to pick up and knew that with the proliferation of smartphones and apps, it was only going to get bigger. Seeing the impact that social media had at one single event opened my eyes to a variety of ways businesses could utilize the tools. Then, I was bound and determined to put them into action.

What did you learn from your mom growing up?

A lot of things! Namely – work hard and be nice. She’s also very innovative. My older sister Maggie is cognitively disabled, so growing up I noticed my mom work hard to create opportunities for Maggie; seeking out new solutions, adapting routines, etc. In doing so, she’s developed activities for Maggie and others that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. In essence, I learned that if there’s not an existing solution for something, create it!

What did you learn from your dad growing up?

My dad started his own business when I was 7, so watching him build and grow his company was really inspiring to me. I learned that it’s not easy, but can be incredibly gratifying (in terms of employing people, helping clients achieve their goals, having control over work / life balance, etc.)

What does Matt (your fiancé) think about your entrepreneurship?

We started dating just after the company was founded, so he’s really been there from the start – through all of the ups and the downs. He’s been so supportive and helpful.

After seeing this question I was curious what he’d have to say, so I asked him. Matt said:

“I think that you being an entrepreneur is very admirable. Most people fantasize about starting their own business from the ground up, but it is a path very few choose to take because of the perceived risk involved, and the lack of confidence in their own ideas. To be able to take your own idea and turn it into an everyday reality is an amazing accomplishment. Being successful has been a result of perseverance, adapting to change (rather rapidly in this industry), and above all else, truly caring for your clients businesses. This has created a very positive business image for your brand, which is a direct reflection of you. I am extremely proud of what you have built and continue to grow. Owning your own business will always have ups and downs, but it takes strong and dedicated individuals to keep the business moving upward. You definitely have these traits and more. To say I am impressed with you and what you have built would be an understatement!”


What have you learned in your first three years in business?

So many things! Mainly – stay true to what you do best – there’s no use in trying to bite off more than you can chew. Also, it’s OK to walk away from business. It’s ok to go against the grain. And, it’s also fun to prove the skeptics wrong, “You’ll never make it in that industry ... it’s a fad ... etc.”

Your biggest “win” in the first 2-3 years?

An opportunity arose in which a large auto manufacturer was headed out on an eight-week road tour. They needed two social media community managers to travel on the tour and they needed them in one week. The Social Lights sprang into action. From finding the right talent, to creating the strategy, toolkit, and policies, to presenting findings and analytics back to the client – The Social Lights not only did something completely new for the client, but for the industry as well. This marked the first road tour where the client had an individual on each tour team dedicated exclusively to social media marketing. Since there was no road map for how to establish the role (or the job expectations, for that matter) we got creative and set up what we would have done had the client been our own company. Tweaking the tasks and processes along the way, we were able to lay the groundwork for a position that would be replicated many times over.

Your biggest “mistake” (and learning) in the first 3 years?

Well, we’ve made plenty of them. Probably partnering errors. We’ve hired some contractors that weren’t the best fit, and got knee deep in projects with clients that didn’t uphold the same values we have, but in that we’ve learned to be choosy and work with individuals and companies that share our vision and values.

What do you like to do for fun?

Biking, blogging, crafts, and travel.

Any other words of wisdom, humor that our readers might enjoy?

On entrepreneurship – if you have an idea – don’t hold it back. Start telling everyone about it. It will help you refine the concept and determine your next steps. Plus, others will hold you accountable for taking action.

Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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