Culture 06 July 2017
After years of clocking in overtime for advertising industry giants, many people dream of the moment when they can hand in their notice and become their own boss. That was the case with production company Honor Society’s Executive Producer and Managing Partner, Megan Kelly, who recently made the leap to not only launch her own production shop, but took a further leap of faith to do so in the male-dominated industry of advertising.
Megan has over two decades of experience on both the advertising agency and commercial production sides of the business and was an early adopter of digital content. While things may seem to have perfectly aligned for her, it was anything but easy to conquer the “Mad Men” industry and forge her path to entrepreneurism.
Ever since its inception in December 2015, the female-led production company has successfully taken off and produced commercial spots for Chase, Burger King (reuniting Napolean Dynamite stars Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez), Michael’s (ft. Snoop Dogg), State Farm, Honda, SKYY Vodka, and JetBlue, among many others.
1. What made you decide to launch your own company?
I realized that I could be doing what I was doing for other people, but for myself. I have always had a very strong point of view and opinions and I knew exactly the type of company that I wanted to create and how to run it. All I needed was a push out of the nest and once I decided to do it, I jumped and haven’t looked back!
2. What was the biggest challenge you had in the first year of launching?
The biggest challenge for me was learning to be patient. I’m a pretty high-strung person with lots of energy and when I have an idea, I want it to happen all at once. It’s been difficult to craft a plan and a vision and wait for it to come together. More so, wait for it to come together correctly. As grateful as I was for the growth and constant activity that we had, it was never enough for me. I want to be at the end of my five-year plan in five months, so I’ve had to learn to have the patience to watch things play out, guide the vision and enjoy the journey. A great piece of advice that I got early on was “you only have your first year once.” Whenever I felt frustrated, I would think about that and repeat it until it became a mantra.
I knew I had an obligation to lay the correct groundwork and build the best brand that I could, so understanding that everything I did in the first year would impact how people portrayed us in the future was a great way to slow down and focus a bit more on the details. I had to realize that five-year plans are given that time frame for a reason.
3. What is the best part about being your own boss?
I have partners and always collaborate with them on business decisions, but the best part for me is getting to create the vision and set the tone. I get to create a culture that I want everyone to live and work by and most importantly, to enjoy.
4. How do you adapt in an industry that is constantly evolving?
Honestly, the media landscape has never not been evolving for me. I got into advertising at a time when budgets were bigger, yes, but there was still a lot of uncertainty. We had the dot com boom and then bust, 9/11, the start of YouTube and social media, the rise of online video, the transition from film to video, the great recession, etc. Now, I feel like every three to six months, it all changes.
I think because it has never been a stable business for me, I’ve become very adaptable. At Honor Society, we are constantly rethinking how we approach projects and how we can make the impossible work. I had a boss once, who when faced with some impossible project, would look at me and say “well, we have to figure this out, because if we don’t someone else will.” That’s the nature of this business, there is always someone who is going to figure out how to do it better, faster, cheaper, etc. So, you can’t dismiss anything. The nerd inside me always wants to be the first one to figure out the puzzle. Embrace the change!
5. What makes a great commercial spot?
Storytelling, of course, but with an element of surprise. I like the unexpected and/or the inventive. That can be either in the storytelling or in the casting. I love a spot where I can tell that someone took a risk. So much of the work being made these days is very safe and I find it refreshing and exciting when a brand is brave enough to take a chance.
BK Commercial Courtesy of Honor Society
6. What is your advice for other women trying to get into commercial production?
Don’t be afraid to start in an entry-level position and work your way up. Learn everything that you can by watching commercial spots, staying updated on industry news and familiarizing yourself with all the work that you can. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to ask to get close to the camera on set. Don’t get stuck being in the office or being a wardrobe production assistant (where entry-level women tend to be). Figure out who’s in the career position you’d want to be in and find a way to work with (or close to) them. Make it known that you want to be a director, a producer or in the camera department. Help the people that can create opportunities for you and be damn good at what you do. Because unfortunately, let’s face it, women need to work harder and be better to get where they want to be.
7. What kinds of things do you try to implement into the morals of your company?
When we started thinking about starting our own production company, we came up with the name Honor Society (which conjures lots of different visions in people’s heads). I was thinking about who we are and the type of people who we want to attract. So I came up with the five pillars of Honor Society: creativity, bravery, passion, intelligence and character.
I would even add a sixth pillar: humor. We apply this lens to our staff, directors and freelancers. We want to work with great people who care deeply about what they do and who treat other people well. I also tend to refer to this as our “no- asshole” policy. I don’t work with disrespectful people.
8. What is your advice to someone thinking about taking the leap to launch their own company?
I would tell them to be prepared to work all the time. I tell people that Honor Society is my third child because running a business is a lot like being a mother. I’m constantly putting the company needs above my own, making sure it has everything it needs to properly grow and develop. It consumes my mind and keeps me up at night.
I think in order to launch your own business, you really have to be prepared to do that. Make sure you have the time and are willing to make those sacrifices in your personal life. You definitely have to be 100 percent invested in what you are doing or you won’t make it through the tough times.
9. What is your advice to other women working in male-dominated industries?
That your mentors and champions do not have to be women. There are plenty of amazing men who really step up into those roles naturally. I am extremely lucky that almost all of my mentors and champions in my career have been men, and I want to call this out because I think so many young women think that they can only be mentored by other women. We also need to encourage more men to mentor women in the workplace.
As a woman, you have to refuse to be intimidated by being the only woman in the room and learn to embrace it. I feel like hard work is valued, but you have to value yourself and know that your opinions matter and that you deserve to be heard. Remember to take yourself seriously and don’t back away from a great opportunity.
10. What was the biggest lesson you learned in the first year of launching Honor Society?
As someone in a leadership position, I have to have confidence in myself to know what's right, while also not being afraid to challenge the established rules and have the balls to follow a vision. Basically, not being afraid to ruffle feathers.
I learned to trust myself, my instincts and my feelings. I have realized that I have strong gut reactions to things, both positive and negative, and I need to trust them. The times, in the past year, when I have gone against my gut instincts have led to less-than-positive outcomes. So I’ve learned to state when I don’t feel good about something and persuade other people to listen to me, but also not demotivate people. On the flip side, convincing people that some crazy idea is really what we need and getting the team to trust you.
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3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.