Grad Student to CEO –The Story of The Marketing Zen Group

Shama Hyder, Founder & CEO, Marketing Zen Group

Grad Student to CEO –The Story of The Marketing Zen Group

When I was nine years old, I started my first business. It was a simple business which involved selling gift wrap out of a catalog. I had colors like azure, sunshine yellow, periwinkle memorized. I knew how much they cost, how much I could sell them for, and the numbers looked good.  It felt good to be an entrepreneur! The trouble was that my customer list only consisted of two people –my mom and my dad. And, after a few months, they refused to buy my merchandise! They said they didn’t have any more room. I know fully well that was a lie since the kitchen pantry wasn’t really being used anyways! And, being nine and not allowed to go door to door or call people from the phonebook (the customers/parents didn’t like that very much!), my marketing options were limited. I even enlisted my six year old sister as an assistant, but she was quickly fired after I found her sticking gum into one of the samples (the horror!). She said she was going to quit anyways as working for candy she could get for free (again! those drat customers/parents!) wasn’t really her style. Like old toys which we outgrow, often we put away our childhood dreams as we get older. As did I.

I put the business failure behind me, and went on to high school and college. I enjoyed my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies so much, that I went on to get my Masters degree in the same area. This time, I focused on social networking. I had a very kind graduate advisor who encouraged my passion in the area of technology and communication. I even did my thesis on social networking. This was in 2008, when Twitter had 2,000 users… today, it has 375 million users. As graduation loomed, I did what any good student is taught to do. I tried to go get a job. I just knew that I couldn’t be alone in my passion for social media! Clearly, companies would have to see what a tidal wave was approaching. And, of course, they’d hire me because I could really help them! Wrong. The majority of the companies I spoke with said they thought social media was a fad. Here are some of the sentiments I heard expressed over and over: Isn’t Facebook for kids? Blogging isn’t going to around forever. Twitter? Is that a video game? After 3 rejections, I was disappointed. After 10, I was giving up hope. After 18, I was plain desolate. And, I’d taken up baking as a way to deal. At the end of it all, two things had happened. One, I discovered I was a great baker. And, two, I realized I could start my own company. The greatest thing about starting a company when you are young is that you have nothing to lose! No mortgage, no kids, and no student loans (thanks to a full scholarship.) At 23, I took the giant leap from being a job seeker so being an entrepreneur. And, yes, somewhere inside, the nine year old me was jumping for joy. The same inner nine year old was also very scared. But, I decided since 18 doors had closed, perhaps it was time to crawl through a window.

At first, I kept the business very broad. I was scared that if I only offered social media help, no one would call on me. So, I called it “business consulting” and offered to help people with whatever aspect of their business they needed help with. However, prospects kept approaching me for help with marketing. Specifically, marketing on the web. I remember one particular networking event, where I client introduced me as their “online genius” – and I tapped them on the shoulder and said “I think you mean business consultant.”  One day, I am sure this will be funny to me. To this day, I still cringe at my naiveté back then. So, I went back to the drawing board, and redefined (or narrowed) the brand to be “social media consulting.”  Then, the clients really started coming in. As did speaking engagements. I’d been on the debate team in high school, but had never really considered public speaking to be part of my profession. But, people were eager to learn. I got invitations from all over the country to speak on social media. As I did, it attracted more clients. I hired more people. It was very important to me that we keep a flexible culture. It was something I loved, and wanted for my employees as well. So, despite growing quickly, we decided to keep the company virtual. To this day, when someone asks me where is your headquarters located, I smile and point to my laptop.

As we grew, so did the demands of our clients. We would consult with them, and then they’d struggle to implement our suggestions. Either they lacked in house resources, or they had to deal with multiple agencies to carry out our proposed ideas. I didn’t like the fact that even though we provided out clients with so much value, they couldn’t make the most of it because implementation of those ideas proved challenging. So, I made a major decision. I decided we’d go from being a consulting company to a turn-key web marketing agency. Meaning, we longer simply advised our clients what they should do. We did it for them. It was a huge turning point for us because internally it was a risk. We had to hire lots of people who could help fulfill the demand. We needed web designers, developers, search engine optimization specialists, content writers, and more. Luckily, the demand existed. And business boomed.

Then, one autumn morning in 2009, I was jolted awake by the ringing of my cell phone. It was 6 am, and the hosting company for our website was concerned. They said we were seeing major spikes in website traffic. 2,000 hits. I remembering mumbling that 2,000 visitors wasn’t a huge number, and then quickly becoming alert when they said – 2,000 hits per minute. I quickly ran to the computer. And, sure enough, the website kept crashing. I was very confused. As I logged onto to Twitter, someone tweeted– Congrats! You are on the homepage of Yahoo. I was amazed…and still confused. A few weeks ago, Business Week was kind enough to name me one of theTop 25 entrepreneurs under the age of 25 in North America. This article had made it on the homepage of Yahoo. The phones would not stop ringing. I had two huge speaking assignments in the midst of the chaos. I was giving a keynote in Florida, and then had to head to Blog World in Las Vegas. I remember sitting in the speaker’s lounge in Las Vegas, and calling prospects back! It was definitely our tipping point.

Later that same year, I released my first book – The Zen of Social Media Marketing. It was an instant hit. Now, the 4th edition of that book is due in 2016. I look back at this journey of mine and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Today, The Marketing Zen Group serves clients around the world. We work with huge corporations, start-ups, non-profits, and everyone in between. We build and optimize websites, we launch social media campaigns, and really strive to be a one stop shop for our clients. We have 28 full timers – and they all work virtually. We have team members from San Diego to Washington D.C. I continue to speak – now around the world – on social media and entrepreneurship. I hope that others might be able to learn from my story. That a little faith, a little luck, and listening to the marketplace can truly go a long way.

5 Tips About Entrepreneurship:

  1. Learn to listen to your clients. When we first started, we were only offering social media consulting services. But, clients quickly demanded more. We eventually ended up serving as their web marketing department. The marketplace will tell you what it needs. You have to listen, and then deliver.
  2. Only hire people who have fire. This is especially true if you are running a small to medium sized business. In a large corporation, there is room for many types of personalities and people. In a smaller business, passion is a must in EVERY position. Hire people who are driven to do well.
  3. Balance is overrated. Aim for joy. When work is fun, you don’t feel the need to take as many breaks. Balance in today’s world looks very different than it did just 20 years ago. Embrace it.
  4. Hard work is a given. Struggle doesn’t have to be. I’ve learned that there is always work that will need to be done. The task list is never complete. So, just enjoy it!
  5. Being a CEO means being a CVO. CVO stands for Chief Value Officer. Always ask yourself: How can I create value for our clients? Our prospects? Our internal team? The answers will guide you to building a better company.

About the Author

Shama Hyder is founder and CEO of the award-winning Marketing Zen Group, an integrated online marketing and digital PR firm. She is also an international speaker, bestselling author, and a regular media correspondent for major networks ranging from Fox Business to Bloomberg. Connect with Shama on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.