By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
For Donna Herrle, life changed in two days.
That’s how much notice the Pittsburgh woman received that she was being laid off from her position at a healthcare group purchasing organization where she had worked for eight years. The news came in August 2002 – just two weeks before her 50th birthday.
Her first reaction was shock. But once she regrouped, Herrle recognized that the layoff presented an opportunity to use her professional background in a new way.
In addition to a degree in graphic design, she had management experience and expertise in sales marketing, websites and printing. For many years, she had maintained a part-time freelance business, dubbed Drawing Conclusions, as a way to stay involved in what she loved the most: designing.
A Huge Decision
“I asked myself: do I want another corporate job? Or do I want to do design on a full-time basis?” says Herrle.
It was a huge decision – especially for Herrle who, as a single parent, didn’t have the safety net of a spouse’s income or job benefits. She met with her two grown sons, Ryan and Tim, who were enthusiastic about the idea of her becoming a full-time business owner. She also sought input from professional colleagues and her freelance clients.
Based upon those discussions, Herrle decided to follow her heart. In October 2002, she incorporated Drawing Conclusions as a full-time entity.
Several factors enabled Drawing Conclusions to get off to a strong start. Thanks to her freelance work, Herrle already had a memorable name for her business, five or six clients and a bank line of credit received from a program for women business owners. She also took the time to prepare a business plan, which gave her “focus” and “peace of mind.”
Networking, she adds, was her “lifeblood” at the beginning. Herrle joined five networking groups and, whenever possible, found out in advance who would be attending the meetings. From her homework, she culled a list of people to meet at each event – an approach that led to new clients.
What also helped was a grand opening party whose invitation won an international award and netted Herrle some new work. Within the first six months, business grew from about six clients to 60. Today, Drawing Conclusions – whose website says it “offers graphic design with direction” – has around 100 clients, six to eight subcontracted employees and annual revenue in the six figures.
From One to Two Companies
In 2008, Herrle acquired a second business, New Pittsburgh Publications, which she renamed Know Where to Go in Pittsburgh. The company sells around 20,000 printed materials annually to promote The Steel City, including an events calendar, the Rich/Poor Man’s Guide to Pittsburgh and a local walking map and guide.
Herrle says the second company was easier to open than the first, in part because Know Where to Go in Pittsburgh is a seasonal business with ebbs and flows in its workload. As sister companies with similar labor needs, the two businesses can use the same subcontractors. Among them is Herrle’s oldest son, Ryan, who provides IT, back office and other support (“We get along beautifully,” she says).
Going from one to two companies was “very exciting,” says Herrle, a one-time stay-at-home mother who never expected to become an entrepreneur.
“When I was working in a full-time job, it was a bit discouraging when people didn’t get promoted when they deserved to be,” she says. “The appeal of business ownership is that no one determines my success but me.”
She enjoys being her own boss but knows it isn’t for everybody. “It takes a certain type of person,” she says, who has certain abilities – like effective time management.
“At first, my time management was out of control,” she says. “I found that I was so anxious to get clients that I was spending all my time in meetings.” Now, she designates one, meeting-free day each week, puts an expected end time for each appointment and asks about budget expectations upfront, to avoid wasted time for both the client and herself.
Like most seasoned entrepreneurs, she views her age as a positive factor.
“Had I started my business fifteen years earlier, I might have had the courage but I would not have progressed the same way,” says Herrle, who’s now 59. “I didn’t have the relationships, professionalism or skill sets that I have today.”
In her free time, she enjoys cycling and strives to complete at least one century (100-mile ride) each year. Professionally, she has ambitious goals as well.
“I feel like part of my responsibility is to mentor the younger generation,” Herrle says. For that reason, she regularly hires design interns and plans to train additional graphic designers to take over Drawing Conclusions one day. The business plan for Know Where to Go in Pittsburgh calls for taking its concept into other, nearby cities.
Says Herrle: “I like that quote by C. S. Lewis: ‘you’re never too old to set another goal or to dream another dream.’”
Spoken like someone who knows.