People develop and change through their life experiences, but in many ways they remain the same. What they were like and what they enjoyed as kids has some predictive power about where they end up.
Pattie Simone’s entrepreneurial efforts started when she was a Girl Scout pulling a wagon stuffed with cookies to sell to friends and neighbors in Long Island.
Then, at 12, she started a flower-making business with a girlfriend (and, of course, the mothers supplied some of the hard labor). In the intricate manufacturing process they formed individual petals and leaves one by one, dipped them into colored solutions, and combined the pieces into “flowers” with florist tape. The local Waldbaum’s supermarket let them stand outside and sell flowers, says Simone, “like in My Fair Lady.”
“It felt good,” she observes, “working, seeing results from work, and making money.”
As Simone continued to work, through high school and college, and then in traffic and production in the textile industry, her entrepreneurial drive was relatively dormant.
Simone’s latest creation, WomenCentric, is described on her website as “a spunky new speaking group producing educational entrepreneurial and leadership venues like nothing you’ve ever experienced.” It is presenting “An Entrepreneurial Success Breakfast Forum for Women,” hosted by the Female Entrepreneur’s Alliance of the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies, on Friday, May 19, at 7:45 a.m. at Lenfell Hall at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Cost: $45. Call 845-362-7880 or email email@example.com for more details. Registration is online at www.whoscoming.com/womencentrichappenings. Men are also welcome.
The path from Girl Scout cookies and Eliza Doolittle lookalikes has been one of learning and growth for Simone, as an individual and as an entrepreneur. In 1988, when she was pregnant with her second child and her sister-in-law was pregnant with her first, they hatched the idea of starting their own business, a home furnishing and gift shop on Main Street in Ramsey. Their hope was to mimic the type of store, widespread in tourist destinations, with a little of everything. They called it “The Home Place,” and their logo was a little house with puffs of hearth smoke coming out the chimney.
The two women had a great time. They discovered a natural bent for merchandising, dividing the store into sections like “Sweet Pea,” for babies, and “For Gentlemen Only,” and putting out products in an inviting way. The product mix changed over time as they started to offer gift baskets, gourmet food, and, for a while, a cappucino bar. (Simone says she and her partner were its best customers.)
But they didn’t get everything right. “We plodded along, faltered, and fumbled, but were able to stay in business seven years,” says Simone. Probably the most egregious of their many mistakes was hiring an accountant who gave them poor advice, because, says Simone, she and her partner didn’t know how to ask the right questions. Eventually they had to close as competing stores opened and people began balking at their pricing.
Her first step into life as an employee was both annoying and frustrating. People looking at her resume would discount her seven-year period of store ownership and say, “So you owned a store — what did you do before that?” With comments like this, she felt they were negating all she had done and learned as a store owner.
Before she was ready to go out on her own again, Simone had held several positions, including director of sales and marketing for two different firms which did business-to-business sales. “I learned a lot and made millions of dollars of new business for the companies and decided I was not cut out for working for other people,” she says. “I wanted to do something on my own.”
While working full time as a fundraiser for a college, she decided to start developing her innate writing skill by writing articles on the side. She also went to many networking functions. “When I met business owners,” she says, “we would get into a conversation about what they were doing, their challenges, and their goals, and I would start giving advice.” She remembers many people responding: “‘That’s a great idea. I’m going to do that,’” and Simone says that “finally the light bulb went on — this is a business.”
The next step was to dip her toe in by doing some independent consulting while she still had a job. “I found to my horror that so many people were calling themselves marketing consultants,” she says. So she decided to build a practice based on her writing expertise. “I decided that my moniker should be “I am a writer; I bring communications to life for people.” She figured that if she was able to do marketing mentoring and consulting through her writing, that would be fine.
It has worked. When she re-emerged as an entrepreneur with Pomona, New York-based Write-Communications (www.write-communications.com), Simone put her small-business experience to good use. “Now my main business is mentoring small business owners about cost-effective marketing and avoiding the pitfalls,” she says. “I want to be the Oprah of entrepreneurship.”
She finds that people starting new businesses have ambitious goals. “They are motivated and passionate about what they do, but lacking a plan.” She helps them to define their product or service and its benefits to customers, to assess what their market is, and to put in place marketing initiatives.
Simone believes it is essential for a business to develop a clear identity, with a consistency of message and look — but many just don’t get it. For example, she says, “they think they have a logo just because someone put a little schmaltz on a business card.” Identity was something that Simone and her sister-in-law did well in their store. She remembers people telling her, “I was so excited the moment I saw the box, because I knew the gift was from Home Place.” She adds, “we were branding ourselves — not knowing what we were doing.”
After Simone opened her doors as Write-Communications, her next step was “networking like mad.” She started connecting with women’s business organizations and associations, with venues in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut that she started thinking of as “women-centric events.”
“In the process I started meeting dynamic women,” she says, and her imagination started churning. She first envisioned a live talk show about business with women anchors. “Close to 11 million women own their own businesses,” says Simone, “and they are opening businesses twice as fast as men and staying in business longer.”
Her idea of bringing together women to speak evolved. As she was exposed to more women speaking about the challenges they faced, she remembers thinking, “I don’t want to be in competition with these folks.” Instead she wanted to join with them to form a speaking group that would be invited to talk at different events. “Most women business owners simply don’t have the time to go back to school and learn to ‘do it the right way,’” she observes. But women can be stymied because running a business takes more than an idea and passion. “These women need solid advice,” says Simone.
So Simone started Womencentric. She pulled together entrepreneurial women, and they debuted at Women’s Images, a women’s conference at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, last March, with five women doing separate segments of a presentation on “Jump Starting Your Career.” Luckily, she says, they filmed it and were able to fix the glitches and tighten some of the talks.
All the women in Womencentric, says Simone, “share a belief in collaboration and have a passion for helping other women succeed.” She says it is an evolving group. “They are as involved as they can be, within the constraints that their own businesses present.”
The loose-knit group has also given a leadership advancement session to sectors of CitiBank and returned this year to Women’s Images.
Simone is always thinking about new ways for Womencentric to reach out to the community. Because she enjoyed being on a college campus so much, she started negotiating with another college to do an event. Although that one didn’t work out, she learned from the experience. “I took a gigantic risk and lost last year,” she says. “I spent a lot of money and nothing happened.”
This year she’s trying again. “The people at the Rothman Institute at Fairleigh-Dickinson loved the idea,” she says. Their Female Alliance is hosting the event, which has been carefully fashioned as a learning and networking experience for women business owners.
One of the speakers, Joan Damico, is a marketing expert and a direct competitor of Simone’s. One of the ideas that Simone wants to get across is that competitors can help each other out. When she was in retail, she says, “I was closed to talking to other people and learning from other people, and I suffered from that.”
In contrast, she says, “here we will be showing people that we have a direct competing thing, the same services in many ways, but there is no reason we can’t collaborate. Through collaboration, we are supporting each other, learning from each other, and helping our businesses.”
Simone is excited about this event. Although she wants to be able to cover her costs and her time, she doesn’t see the event as primarily a way to make money. “I want to get the message of collaboration out to as many people as possible,” she says.
Simone credits her mother with the kind of spirit and mentality that inspired her to open Home Place. As a child, her mom was always putting on plays, even though “she can’t sing to save her life.” Her mom’s approach (and now her own) was: “Let me try this. I’ll figure out what I need to do, and I’ll do it.”