'Small Biz Lady' Melinda Emerson On Being Your Own Boss

News & Views | Gerren Keith Gaynor | 03/19/2014 | 11:30 AM EDT

The 15-year vet shares advice on how to start and grow your business...and how she became known as America's number one small business expert

Very few people can say they built their empire from the ground up. Author and small business expert Melinda Emerson is one of them. Her 15 years of experience as an entrepreneur has propelled her to having the distinction of being America’s number one small business expert.

Known for her online alias, “Small Biz Lady,” Emerson has amassed over 250,000 Twitter followers and runs the largest and longest Twitter chat #SmallBizChat (every Wednesday night for 8-9 EST), which reaches an average 2.5 million accounts. With her blog, SucceedAsYourOwnBoss.com, which is syndicated through Huffington Post, and a regular column with The New York Times, she reaches roughly 3 million entrepreneurs online. In addition, Emerson’s business, Quintessence Multimedia, has acquired social media clients with Fortune 500 companies like Verizon Wireless, FedEx, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo. In a nutshell, if you need advice on how to be an entrepreneur, Emerson’s your woman.

caught up with America’s “Small Biz Lady,” who shares how Oprah Winfrey inspired her to start her own business and gives some life lessons on how you, too, can be your own boss.

CENTRIC: Tells us a little bit about your background and how you came to be known as the “Small Biz Lady.”

I started out as a television producer for the ABC and NBC stations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. One day I just decided that my dream job had become a nightmare and I needed to do something different. I was inspired by Oprah Winfrey when I was in college. She was the first journalist I ever saw start a business, so I was like I can do that too. I started a video production company in 1999. Over the years we have morphed from video production to web development, to now a major marketing and consulting firm specializing in social media strategy.

Throughout the course of running my business I became pregnant with my son in 2005 and I got put on bed rest for six months. I started writing down stuff that I wish I had done differently if I had known better and that really became the backbone of my best-selling book, “Become Your Own Boss In 12 Months.” When [the book] was about to come out, the Market had crashed, the publisher postponed the release, and I was stuck because I had wind down my business thinking I’m going on this national book tour. I had to become the media myself. I hired a publicist and she said Twitter is where you should go. We go to sign me up and my name, Melinda Emerson, is taken...and that’s how I became the Small Biz Lady. It was the best branding accident that ever happened to me. In April we’ll be celebrating our five-year anniversary.

How does being a mom and woman impact you as an entrepreneur?

It’s like having three full-time jobs. I was married so I know what it is to be a wife, mother and business owner - and that’s a lot. Most people just have to work a job and they just work their 65 hours a week and they have a wife that takes care of all the minutia. Well, as a woman you have to take care of the minutia and your business...unless you’re going to hire your wife, which is what I did (laughs). I have a personal assistant to help me with some of the things I do not have time to handle myself. When you’re a  woman in business you have to have a great support team, particularly if you have children because your family is your number one client no matter what. You have to make sure that their needs are being met while you’re serving your business and serving yourself.

What are some common mistakes novice or new business owners make?

There are really five reasons why small businesses fail. (1) People aren’t realistic about what their lives are going to be like running their business. Somehow people think they’re going to have more time when they start a business. That’s not the case. In the first few years of starting your business, your business owns you. (2) Your network is your networth. Ninety percent of all small businesses get businesses from referrals. It’s important that your network be nurtured before you run off and quit your job to start your business. (3) People simply don’t save enough money before they start their business. The reality is banks don’t loan money to small businesses. The money to start your business comes from your right or left pocket. (4) People try to chase anybody they think has money, as opposed to having a specific niche target customer. When you start a business there are two things you have: limited time and limited resources. You need to pick a target you can actually hit. (5) The deadliest reason is that if you won’t manage your household with a budget, you won’t manage your business one. Successful businesses are run based on up-to-date financial information. You need to know by the 15th of the month how well your business did last month.

What are the ingredients for a great business idea?

Having time, money and experience to pursue it. You also need to evaluate the relevancy of the business. Is your business going to be hot three to five years from now or is it just a trendy business to get your money and get out quickly? Figure out if you’re going into a business that is growing or shrinking.

What advice can you give people who think they have a great business idea but are scared to get the ball rolling?

If you have a plan you don’t have to be fearful. If you quit your job with no plan you should be fearful, but if you do your homework, you know your market and industry, you saved your money, you got your contacts ready...start your business. I believe people should be side hustlers anyway. I think you should work your business as a side hustle for 12-18 months before you quit your job. A lot of people quit too soon. You need to learn on somebody else’s dime before you cut them paychecks off.

What are some of the challenges minority small businesses face?

I think minority businesses are still not effectively using technology. We still have too many people out here with no website. Now mobile web is becoming so important because people are searching the Internet with tablets and smartphones. Social media is the best thing to happen to small business owners because it used to be the guy with the most advertising dollars won the business. Now, it’s the guy with the most authentic relationship with customers that wins. Social media is the single best way for them to do that. But social media is a long-tail strategy, not a short-tail one. Make sure you are where your best target customer spends the majority of their time online. Also have a great, helpful website that tells them in three seconds or less why they’re there. Always think about things from your customer’s perspective.

What do you think about the movement to ban the term “bossy,” and do you find it offensive?

I’ve certainly been called bossy and it does have a negative connotation to it. I wrote a book “Becoming Your Own Boss” so it’s a little hard for me to say ban the word boss (laughs). But I definitely think girls need different images of what a woman is. We want young people, especially young women, to think about entrepreneurship as an option, so I want people to be a boss. I don’t want them to be bossy.

Small Biz Lady will be having a 15-day giveaway for small business owners to celebrate her 15th anniversary in the business. For more information visit www.SucceedAsYourOwnBoss.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SmallBizLady.

(Photo: Courtesy of Melinda Emerson)

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