January 2015 was a big month for Tara Wilson. That’s the month she called Alice Watson at Planet Signs and said she needed to change the logo on her office door.
“She came and scraped the old one off and we put a new one up and that was it,” Wilson said. And in that moment, Tara Wilson Events, which had opened in 2007, became the Tara Wilson Agency. But the change was more than just one word.
This year, her agency is ranked 901 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private firms in America. Revenue increased across three years by 492 percent.
And it all happened because of Post-It notes. Oh, and vision, hard work and courage.
Wilson, 41, has a finance degree from Auburn University and worked at Merrill Lynch for 10 years, joining when the firm was in downtown Fort Worth and rising to a senior financial adviser position.
But in her heart, she wanted to give parties. She’s fond of telling about her bulletin board at Merrill. Others had them, too, of course.
“They would have stock reports and charts and things all pinned to their bulletin board. I had articles pulled from Town and Country magazine, pictures of my clients’ grandkids, invitations to parties. After hours, that was what I was consumed with. That was what I was interested in.”
And so, she finally made the jump, leaving a secure world for the uncertainty of being an entrepreneur.
She wanted to do social, corporate and nonprofit event planning, but most of her work became social events, especially weddings, which are one-off projects.
“I never did a repeat wedding,” she said. Weddings don’t come with a guarantee clause. “That's on you to make it work. Should you need me again, feel free to come back.”
She found that the repeat business was from her nonprofit work and her corporate clients.
She had a reasonably predictable estimate at the first of each year on what her business would be like in the coming 12 months, at least with the corporate and nonprofit work. But she wanted to grow the business.
The Entrepreneurs’ Organization, specifically the accelerator program which it runs, proved to be the incentive she needed.
She found the program by reading the biography of another successful entrepreneur. The qualification to get into the accelerator program is revenue of $250,000 or above but below the million-dollar mark, the qualifier to apply for EO.
She wanted into the accelerator program, but in her first year as an event company, she only billed around $147,000. Her company’s second-year revenue was about $257,000.
“I immediately started calling and I got involved in that organization in that specific program. That program is designed to help you scale a business to get to the million-dollar mark,” Wilson said. “Only 5 percent of all businesses ever cross what we call the ‘valley of death,’ over the $1 million mark.
Wilson actually launched the Fort Worth Entrepreneurs’ Organization Accelerator Program in 2014 and was chairman of the chapter for three years. Annual dues are $1,500, plus an additional local market fee that varies by market. She’s now a member of the Global Subcommittee of EO Accelerator, a stepping stone to full EO membership.
She was planning what she calls a hard pivot – drop the social events and focus only on corporate and nonprofit business.
Wilson began to research that idea and work on rebranding the website – making it less pink and more business – to position her company so a corporation would have an interest in doing business with her.
“I uncovered something that intuitively I knew existed, but I didn't know what it was called,” she said. “That was experiential marketing. Every bell and whistle in my mind went off.”
She was already interested in metrics to measure the success of marketing efforts and her company already was known as an excellent event planner.
“Experiential marketing merged those two – my interest in the metrics, my interest in the marketing side of letting people touch and feel and experience your brand in a really authentic way and this thing that I had built and developed as an event planner, which was this great reputation, a stable of vendors, knowledge of how to run an event,” Wilson said.
And that was scalable.
It takes nerve to walk away from a good portion of your business, but that’s what Wilson did.
“January of 2015 I just made a sharp decision. I was, like, ‘We're not gonna do any more weddings.’ Usually after the first of the year, that's when people got engaged, the brides are calling. The phones are ringing and people were wanting to have meetings about weddings, and I was saying, ‘I'm sorry, we don't do that any longer.’”
But the question was what to do instead.
“It was the hardest four months of my professional career, January to April of that year,” Wilson said. “There was no income coming in. I had one employee besides myself, no income. You still have overhead and bills you've got to pay. It was nerve wracking.”
Wilson has run one Iron Man race and three half Iron Mans. She was working her way through the change in business when she was training for her first Iron Man competition in the summer of 2014.
“You get a lot of clarity when you're out on 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-mile bike rides weekend after weekend, and you're all by yourself. You've got a lot of time to think,” she said.
While she was training for the swimming part, the thoughts circulated through her mind:
“How I was gonna get through the day? Surely, we would get there. What have I done? Have I cut off my nose to spite my face?”
She reached out to people who could mentor her, guide her, advise her and help her network so that she could connect with those Fortune 500 companies that she was so interested in.
There was no traction. She told herself she didn’t need to score a touchdown at the very beginning, she just needed to advance the ball down the field every day.
Enter the Post-It note.
"What I committed to do was every night before I went to bed, on a Post-It note, nothing bigger, I wrote three things that I needed to do the next day. If I did all three of those things I could go home and feel like I'd accomplished something.”
No. 1 on every list every day was something related to sales. “Meet someone new, go to a networking event, call somebody for coffee, send my business card out, make five cold calls. Whatever it was,” Wilson said.
Some were crazy ideas, like going to a Sweet Sixteen watching party she had been invited to in Dallas during March Madness basketball playoffs. “It's pouring down rain here in Fort Worth. The last thing I want to do is drive to Dallas and go to a bar and talk to a bunch of people I don't know.”
But the Post-It note for that day called for meeting three new people. So, she drove to The Nodding Donkey at 2900 Thomas Ave. in Dallas. The hosts were vendors she had worked with in the past.
In a conversation with one of the hosts, he asked her what she did, and she explained the concept of experiential marketing.
He asked, “Have you ever met Erin over here with Samsung?”
“I step over, I have a conversation with her, and it was like in that moment, looking back, the tides turned,” Wilson said. “I didn't know it at the time but she ended up being a great contact who went on to be our first client within Samsung, to give us our first piece of business. That was in March.”
At their next meeting in April 2015, it turned out that the original project they had discussed wasn’t going to happen. But Wilson knew that she might never get to sit across the table with someone from Samsung again, so she decided to press on until Erin told her to leave.
She spent about 90 minutes in that meeting and it led to an opportunity to do an event in New York for Samsung client Metro PCS to target millennial guys who usually spend their discretionary income on cell phones and sneakers.
And here is a lesson on what experiential marketing is.
Wilson remembered a National Public Radio story from years earlier about a sort of underground culture of people who collect sneakers. Then she called a kid she knew who worked at a country club and asked about sneakers. He had about 50 pair. He also told her there were people who customized sneakers and a magazine called Complex that ranked sneaker collectors.
She pitched an event at SneakerCon in New York with noted sneaker customizer Mache present and some of his more famous designs on display. There were information stations about Metro PCS and its phones around the edge. And visitors could meet with him, maybe get their picture made and see his designs after they had viewed the cell phone information.
The name Mache might not mean much to many people but in the right demographic he and his company, Mache Custom Kicks, are golden. He moved sneaker customizing from an underground genre to art galleries and the feet of sneaker fans, celebrities and athletes such as rapper Wale, Kanye West and Kobe Bryant.
“We weren't 100 percent sure it would work. I was just pulling on my resources to teach me in the moment,” she said. By that July they were doing an activation in New York.
It hit the target audience precisely in an experience-based event.
“Somewhat the rest is history,” Wilson said.
What she considers the best piece of advice she ever got came as she was leaving Merrill Lynch. Client Bob Elrod – now deceased – was a longtime executive at Lockheed Martin. She told him she was planning to open the event company.
He gave her one thought: “Cash flow is king.” It didn’t really sink in, she said, until she learned how important it was sometimes to just keep the business open if not expanding.
Mentoring is important to her and when she looks back on her younger self as she talks to women fresh out of college, she tells them they won’t have it figured out until they have done some living.
“It's even harder today on young women who are bombarded with all the social media and can see what their peer groups are doing, and [have] this perception that somebody else has it better than they,” she said.
And then she shares a quote often attributed to the late Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Live your life by a compass, not a clock.”
To an outsider, it looks like Tara Wilson lives by both.
Tara Wilson Agency
3470 River Bend Blvd., No. 401
Fort Worth, Texas 76116
2007: Tara Wilson Events founded
2015: Rebranded as Tara Wilson Agency, focusing on experiential marketing events or live brand activations
$2.3 million: Total revenue (fiscal year 2016)
492 percent: 3-year revenue growth (Source: Inc. 5000/Inc.com)
10: Tara Wilson’s years as an entrepreneur
5: Current full-time employees
901: Ranking on the 2017 Inc. 5000
4.6 million: Number of social media impressions generated for SneakerCon – Tara Wilson Agency’s first experiential marketing event for Samsung in 2015
105,670: Miles flown by Tara Wilson Agency employees since January 2016
1,765: T-Mobile sales representatives trained on Samsung products in live brand activations
1,200: Samsung field sales managers trained through experiential learning
About Experiential Marketing
Brand activation is a relatively new marketing term; the goal is to let consumers engage directly with a brand through a campaign, event or experience.
$560 billion: Spending on brand activation marketing in the United States in 2015 (Source: “The U.S. Brand Activation Marketing Forecast 2016” study by Association of National Advertisers in partnership with PQ Media)
$740 billion: Projected spending on brand activation marketing by 2020 (Source: “The U.S. Brand Activation Marketing Forecast 2016” study by Association of National Advertisers in partnership with PQ Media)
Record Sales Lifts: 65 percent of marketers are seeing a direct sales lift as the result of experiential marketing, and almost one-third are generating at least a 10:1 ROI (return on investment) from experiential marketing investments (Source: 2015 EventTrack study, fielded by The Event Marketing Institute/Mosaic)
See also: PsychologyToday.com’s The Digital Self: Tara Wilson’s "10 Key Rules For Building Powerful Mentor Relationships.”