Saturday, May 12, 2007

Business Ambition Meets Social Conscience

Downsizing doesn't have to be the end of hope and future plans. For many entrepreneurs it marks the beginning of their independent small business careers. Sharon McRill, owner of Betty Brigade, had spent six years helping develop Borders web presence when she was downsized over four years ago.

"I was one of the original five people that started We built the website up so much that it was sold to Amazon. We did a really good thing for the company, but worked ourselves out of a job. We didn't know that's what we were working toward," McRill remembers. "Yes, I was downsized, but I got a stock option buyout and took all that money and put it into creating this business. Failure was not an option."

"I was literally sitting on my couch, feeling sorry for myself watching Oprah do a show about living your best life and starting your own business, when I realized I could start a business," McRill said.

"I started what I'm doing now on a much smaller scale for family and friends, while looking for another job," said McRill. But demand for her services grew rapidly and she found that working as a personal assistant/concierge worked best as a full time occupation.

Since then, the company has grown into a full service concierge company that provides organizing, party and event planning, wedding planning, pet care, and residential/business moving coordination, and referrals. Currently based in Ann Arbor, McRill plans to open another office in West Bloomfield, an area with high demand for Betty Brigade's services. She hopes this expansion will ultimately lead to national franchising.

"Starting a business is by far the hardest thing I have done. An entrepreneur needs to be strong-willed and even stubborn; they can't be wishy washy. You have to really want it. You have to be able to weather the storms and work smart,"McRill advised. Part of that is finding and utilizing the abundant small business resources currently available.

"Early on I put together a mentor/adviser team of about eight people who meet with me quarterly over dinner and share their advice," she said. McRill also has a long range business plan that she reviews and revises annually.

McRill firmly believes in the power of giving back to the community. A portion of her business consists of giving referrals to local companies that provide services that her company does not. Although she doesn't collect a fee of any kind for passing on business to other companies, she contends that this generates good will and future business for Betty Brigade. She also has developed a reputation as a "green" business, due to the large amount of recycling that results from her company's work and a Waste Knot partnership with Washtenaw County Waste Reduction.

Betty Brigade participates in charitable projects, as well. "My company helped build a Habitat for Humanity house last year. Called Rainbow House, it was the second Habitat house in the nation to be built by the LGBT community. I ended up donating $10,000 of company resources to help build the house," McRill said.

With respect to the business, economic and media climate in Michigan, she acknowledges the negative tone and bad news, but counters it with openness and realism. "There are some very serious issues. Michigan has seen better days, but there is a lot of new technology and new industry coming. If you pay attention, you'll see it. The biotech industry in Michigan can become unrivaled in the next five to ten years, if it is allowed to flourish," she said.

"I can't save the world, but I am responsible for my own little plot of land, which is where my business is. If I can take care of that, I can feed my employees and feed myself, while taking care of clients."

That's sound advice for anyone in Michigan right now.