While some entrepreneurs wait anxiously for years to start the business of their dreams, others have business ownership thrust upon them. For Carol Mortarotti Mason, it was a personal tragedy that started her on the path to entrepreneurship.
“I think people never think it’s going to happen to them,” says Carol Mortarotti Mason, a New York-based entrepreneur and owner of Forgive and Conquer, whose ex-husband committed suicide in 2011. “But life does happen, and when you least expect it. And it’s better to take the cautionary side and be prepared, than go through the financial disaster I did being totally unprepared for it.”
Although she may not realize it, Carol is one of a group of entrepreneurs sometimes referred to as “emergency entrepreneurs” or “necessity entrepreneurs.” According to research by the National Women’s Business Council, some start businesses because they can’t find other employment; while others find life situations make entrepreneurship preferable. “Necessity entrepreneurship can arise out of employment situations where entrepreneurship is not the only option, but is the preferable option,” says the NWBC in a research report.
I sat down with Carol to talk about loss, renewal and the rewards of entrepreneurship.
Tell me about what you went through after your ex-husband died.
I went from not having to worry about finances — my ex-husband was very successful and took care of everything for our son — to literally overnight having to work three jobs just to be able to pay for all the additional expenses I was now responsible for.
I had to do this for over three years, and it was exhausting. I truly wish that I had set things up differently in the beginning to protect myself and my son. I should have bought a life insurance policy on my ex-husband since he was the main financial provider, and also made sure that his will was done correctly, instead of just taking it for granted and believing that he’d taken care of it. It’s not only yourself you have to watch out for, it’s your whole family.
You lost your Wall Street job in 2007. At what point did you decide to start a small business?
I couldn’t find a job that paid well after being downsized and I’d always wanted to start my own business. So about two years after my ex-husband died I went into grief recovery because I wanted to give back and help others heal after learning a process that helped me heal and get my life back.
There are a lot of people in my age group — I’m 57 — that have been downsized, and are becoming entrepreneurs. I became a certified grief recovery coach, and now I run one-on-one and group coaching programs where I guide people to work through their grief or loss. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re going through a type of loss, and that it’s holding them back in life and their business.
After you got certified as a grief recovery coach, your business picked up pretty quickly. How did that happen?
I first offered free group coaching to a few people in exchange for providing honest testimonials. Facebook was a great way to connect and spread the word of what I was offering. I was fortunate in that I was well-received and people would spread the work to their friends and family about my services.
Did you have any special training that prepared you to start a small business?
After I left Wall Street, I studied marketing and I learned all about social media marketing and strategy. I worked for several small businesses, helping them with their marketing and putting together effective strategies for them. It was definitely a big challenge — trying to maintain the same lifestyle for me and my son while earning half of what I was making before — but it’s gotten me to where I am today and I’m grateful I took that path because I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to the corporate grind.
Can you talk a little bit more about the value of social media?
You have to just go for it and put yourself out there to get noticed, which will help in getting clients, and social media plays a big role in that today. Facebook and Instagram are the top two places for me, but for me the biggest platform is Twitter. I have over 50,000 organic followers. But it can be tough getting people to click on links and take the next step on Twitter, so you have to get to know the strengths of each platform.
How did you build up such a large organic following on Twitter?
It was gradual. I was consistent and worked at it for two years. Every day I would look at my competitors and follow around 50 of their followers, and also reach out and comment, like or retweet posts. Then after two years it took on a life of its own and it began to grow rapidly.
But it definitely took some work in the beginning. It’s about being consistent. Twitter is great because you can express yourself and put several links in your tweet for people to take action on. Instagram is great, too, but it’s primarily visual and you have to be creative with getting people to take action rather than just commenting on your photos. You need to test different ads and do some specific target marketing. You’re constantly tweaking, reviewing what’s effective, and what isn’t.
Do you have some general suggestions for people who find themselves in your shoes — forced to start a small business?
The first thing is to seek out advice so you don’t waste time setting up your business incorrectly. Go to professionals, or people who’ve had success in setting up their business and ask them what worked and what didn’t so that you don’t reinvent the wheel.
The next suggestion is to put together some financing so that you are able to hire people who can help you. It’s overwhelming to do everything yourself, and you should focus on what you’re good at. If you’re not good at designing, then hire graphic designers to do your logo or your website. You don’t have to spend a fortune on it. There are companies out there that offer really good services for lesser price points. So get help — don’t try to do everything on your own.
The third point would be don’t get overwhelmed. Make small to-do lists and tackle one task at a time instead of trying to have 12 projects going at once. You don’t have to master all social media platforms in the beginning. Find out where your target audience hangs out and focus on being available and accessible there.
Finally, it’s important not to be married to how you actually get to your end goal. A lot of people get stuck thinking in order to be successful that they have to use Google or Facebook ads, or they think their target audience is going to be a specific age range, so you need to be flexible and adapt to who’s actually responding to your marketing.
You can’t just assume something’s going to work because you assumed it.
Exactly. Some people have more success on one platform than another. One platform might not work out like you initially thought it would. That’s why you need to be flexible and put some feelers out there and see what works best and then stick with that. Build upon what is working instead of feeling overwhelmed by thinking you need to be on eight different platforms and not focusing on any of them. Be where your audience is.
What would you say to people who feel that pressure but don’t believe they can do it?
When I started my small business, I was still working two jobs. But there’s still a lot of free time left in the day. You need to be disciplined. I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t have time to start a business,” but then they’ll find four hours a night to watch TV. It has to be a priority for you. What do you want more? The freedom of having your own business, or would you rather not take any action and have regrets in life?
You have to stay motivated and be laser focused on your reason why. A lot of people want success without putting in the hard work, so it takes a certain type of person to be an entrepreneur.
It goes back to what you were saying about making small to-do lists, just taking one step at a time.
Yes, in the beginning I hired coaches, worked through my healing, and came from a place of gratitude for being able to work, and still have time to build my own business. I stayed focused on the reason why I was working so hard. I didn’t want having to work two or three jobs be a way of life for me and for my future. What I did want was to have the freedom and flexibility that building your own business affords, and to provide for my son.
Especially in the beginning you’re going to put in a lot of time, but isn’t it better to work hard for yourself instead of putting in 40-60 hours for someone else’s business? Entrepreneurship can be extremely rewarding and provide you a lifestyle designed by you.
Image courtesy of Carol Mortarotti Mason