Nicole K. Garner is proof that a third grade owner of a lemonade stand can become a CEO. The now 32-year-old also sold Girl Scout cookies with that juice-staff in tow—because teamwork, honing her skill set and being financially responsible are the foundation of her successful public relations company, The Garner Circle PR.
It's been eight years since she opened the doors of her Atlanta-based firm. "I studied all aspects of business, from operations and development to accounting and finance," says Garner, whose clients, past and present, include Strength of Nature Global, MillerCoors, Janelle Monae, Ciara and Moet.
"Although I knew PR inside and out, and I had my degree in hand, before I started my agency I still needed to deepen my knowledge of the business world," she says. A program at the Small Business Association of Georgia helped Garner sharpen her expertise. "Early on, my daily role could easily shift between accounts receivable, sales, business development, customer service and publicity."
Today, Garner jet sets around the globe planning high-profile events. The following life changing lessons have kept her in a profession that she adores.
1. It takes money to make money: "Continue to accept holiday jobs, to save and to freelance until you build up revenue," she says. "You need cash flow to travel, buy web services and market your company. You never want to lose sleep worrying about money. This can lead to compromising your dream, and you need that energy to produce innovative creativity for your clients."
2. Control your equity: " Never give up half of your company without asking for an investment," insists Garner. "Your partner should buy stakes and put money on the line. Make a list of what each partner is bringing to the table and divide profits accordingly, versus an even split." She also suggests using a vesting period. "This is when your partner commits to working for a set number of years and only earns equity upon completing those years." She also says to have a shareholders agreement. This document stipulates exactly how much it will cost to buy back each share when the time comes to part ways.
3. Don't sell your soul: "Stay focused on the mission of your company and don't get distracted with temporary financial gain that can compromise your integrity," says Garner, who has seen many counterparts accept a check from clients whose projects did not vibe with their company's vision. "As a result, they began to get burnt out and to resent their perspective fields."
4. Crowd source: "If you have a solid project, people will want to be a part of it," she says. So ditch the loans and use sites such as kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com. They give entrepreneurs an opportunity to raise funds via their digital communities. "One of my clients has successfully raised funds for their cause by using three platforms," she adds. "They received tremendous support from their immediate network as well as strangers who believed in thier project."
5. Be tech-savvy: "Use technology and apps until you can afford the additional manpower," says Garner. Her favorites are Mint.com to budget; Freshbooks.com for accounting; Squareup.com for credit card payments; and Expensify.com to track expenses.
A final golden nugget for budding business owners is to diversify your counsel because a singular mentor is no longer sufficient for a 30-year career. "Today we need a host of coaches to stay competitive," says Garner whose dream list includes a profession/trade mentor, industry mentor, organization mentor, customer mentor, work process mentor, technology mentor, work and life integration mentor and a career development mentor.
Under the guise of such experts, she has created programs for companies that needed to connect with multi-cultural audiences, which has brought attention to under-served demographics. Additionally, she shares her knowledge and passion through three of her own organizations: the Entrepreneur Ivy League initiative, the Pretty Powerful Business Consultation Program, and her non-profit for young girls, Pink Lemonade Stand.
Garner, who gracefully navigates a profession brimming with competitors, holds this thought near. "Anyone can do what you're doing, but no one can be who you are being." And that gem keeps The Garner Circle, which is "rooted in unity, wholeness, and infinite possibilities," standing tall above the rest.