VENTEUR spoke with April White, president and founder of Trust Relations, about her entrepreneurial journey. Trust Relations is a fully remote strategic communications and integrated marketing agency. White has nearly 20 years of experience counseling and implementing PR campaigns for clients across various industries, ranging from Fortune 100 companies to startups. Her clients have included MasterCard Worldwide, MetLife International, Sotheby's International Realty, Hyatt, Rosetta Stone, Petco, American Standard, The Dannon Company, YellowTail Wines, and Sealed Air and Music.
White co-hosts two original podcasts: “The PR Wine Down” and “Trust Relations: The Podcast,” and recently delivered a TEDx talk on individuals and businesses uniting in their differences. In addition, she was named a finalist in the 2022 Stevie® Awards for Women in Business. After agency hours, she serves as a national business mentor for SEED SPOT and OneValley Startup.
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
I am much better at setting boundaries for my team than charging them for myself. Now that I am aware of this, I am continually practicing setting better boundaries in all areas of my life.
I have also discovered that I am a visionary. This means I focus on the bigger picture and need to hire people to take care of the minute details of the business.
Ultimately, I have had to let go of the story I told myself that I was more of a behind-the-scenes person who helps others succeed and learn to take my place in the spotlight as the company leader.
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?
I can relate to experiencing loneliness on my journey as an entrepreneur. When I started my business, I felt nobody was there to help me. This was partly because I had not hired the right people. However, as soon as I did, the feeling of not being supported disappeared.
Another isolating experience I've had as a business owner is that I can't talk to my employees about certain aspects of the business. To address this, I started a group called "Agency Owners Anonymous," which allows agency owners to come together once a month to air their grievances, give each other advice, and provide a supportive environment. It has been beneficial to share ideas, resources, and feedback. We can lean on each other for support and help each other grow.
What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?
I would say that intuition has been integral to my success as an entrepreneur.
Most of the decisions I make and how I lead my company are based on instinct–what I feel will work, what I know will work, and just having the courage to trust and take action.
While I've made some mistakes along the way, I've been right more than I've been wrong and I believe this way of doing business has dramatically benefited Trust Relations.
One of the strongest examples of my intuition serving the company well was when I decided to hire my current head of operations. I knew in my bones that she was the exact person I needed. However, her asking salary was higher than I could afford at the time. Despite that, I hired her and endured some financial stress in the short term. Looking back, there is no way that the company would be where it is today if I hadn't made that decision.
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
I have always been confident, so I have not particularly experienced insecurity or low self-esteem. However, I am an extrovert, and loneliness is something that I have felt in the past. When I started my business, I put my social life on ice for about three years to build the company. As a result, I had no contact with the outside world except on odd occasions. This led me to feel lonely and isolated.
While I don't suffer from low self-esteem, I have had low self-worth, even before becoming an entrepreneur–but I believe that the reason my company is as successful as it is and that I have been able to achieve what I have is due to my low self-worth. I was on a mission to prove to the world that I had something to offer, and I worked tirelessly with no boundaries (and no sleep). I realized this isn't healthy, and I have started working on my self-worth and boundaries.
I thrive on interaction with others, so as my team grew, I established more ways to create a positive company culture. I also made it a personal priority to regularly meet with friends, attend open mic nights, and participate in karaoke to indulge my love for music. As I mentioned before, I also created a support network for other agency owners. Now, I don't experience loneliness.
What is the most unrelatable part of being an entrepreneur, how does this impact your mental health, and why?
The entrepreneur mindset is one where you have to reach for the stars. This has to be balanced with action and reason, but without that slightly idealistic streak, you cannot dream up something as big as you have and go and do it. Most people can't relate to that, and there are times when you question your sanity as an entrepreneur. Is what I am setting out to do realistic? The answer may be "no" at the moment, but then the entrepreneurial mind dreams up a way to make it a reality and won't settle for anything less. You will never know what is possible until you try.
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid them?
1. Mixing Friends With Business
One mistake that I made early on in the business was hiring some of my friends. This meant that I could not have a truly professional relationship with them. These experiences reinforced establishing boundaries because these relationships often lead to a much more convoluted work dynamic.
2. Hiring People Without a Certain Level of Competency
My other mistake was trying to "rescue" people from situations. In other words, I found myself hiring people who did not have the qualifications or mindset for the work I needed them to do, which made me frustrated when they weren't producing the results I was looking for and frustrated them because they were not achieving the results that they wanted to deliver. This created resentment from all parties involved. I learned how to prioritize hiring team members based on merit and work ethic while honoring my intuition.
3. Not Asking for Help When I Needed It
My third mistake was taking on too much, a common problem for entrepreneurs. In the early stages of growing my business, I did so much work that I could not create processes and systems to support steady growth and development. From this, I learned the importance of self-care, asking for help when needed, and hiring team members that complement my skill sets.
What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?
Entrepreneurs often tend to overlook their psychodrama or negative psychology. When these are not adequately addressed through therapy or introspection, the person tends to perpetuate their issues within the company. This can present itself as attracting employees and clients with similar problems, which has everyone locked into an unhelpful position. Therefore, entrepreneurs need to create some mirror or self-reflection practice that allows them to identify what they need to improve and then commit to addressing those issues, leading to a healthier, more positive work environment.
Another aspect of business that I often see entrepreneurs overlook is whether or not there is a "want" or a "need" for the product or service they are offering within the marketplace. It is common for entrepreneurs to be so excited by their idea that they fail to do the due diligence of market research. Establishing whether or not your product or service has a "home" within the marketplace will allow you to start your business from solid ground and scale from there.
The extent of the vision is also something I see many entrepreneurs overlook. It is essential to dream big from the beginning. Having that larger-than-life goal–that seemingly impossible vision–allows us to persevere. As cliche as it is, the old saying "go big or go home" rings accurate as an entrepreneur.
What are three seemingly insurmountable obstacles you've faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
I have had some financially taxing times in my entrepreneurial journey. For example, there were times when I was concerned about keeping the company afloat after a lawsuit, overdue invoices, or multiple clients who ended their contracts and did not renew at the same time. As a result, I had to get creative and quickly find solutions to manage the business's finances. Since then, I have hired a very talented bookkeeper who is always looking ahead, putting money aside, planning for unseen potential issues, and looking for ways to keep the business financially afloat.
Another obstacle I've faced was hiring a few people who turned out to be toxic. They created a work environment that was detrimental to my other employees and clients. It started with two people who, seemingly out of the blue, went from trusted employees to troublemakers intent on bringing the company down. As a result, I had to remove a group of people, conduct damage control, and implement measures to minimize the likelihood of hiring similar people in the future.
Early in my career, I also had some unpaid clients I had to send through collections and litigation. Those experiences were very stressful. However, they taught me to establish contracts that were more protective of my company to prevent similar situations from happening again.
What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey more manageable, and why?
1. Hiring Process
Hiring people who complement your skill sets is paramount to the success of your business. You may come across people you know you need to hire, but they may be a financial stretch at the time. However, if that person can directly impact your bottom line (i.e., bring revenue into the business), then you need to do your best to find a way to make it work. It also may not be apparent initially that this person will impact the bottom line, but it is essential to think long-term. For example, I hired someone who created systems and procedures that improved client experience, increased employee retention, and made Trust Relations a more efficient and streamlined company.
2. Contract Procedures
The following advice may seem obvious, but I learned it the hard way: Never work for a client unless they have first signed a contract and paid in full or the agreed-upon installments as per your agreement. Doing work without these protective measures leaves you open to issues such as non-payment or legal action.
3. Take Care of Yourself
Lastly, though arguably most importantly, you must take time to care for yourself regularly. You are the biggest asset that your company has, and you have to take care of it (you).
What is the most significant difference between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why?
The funny thing about being an entrepreneur is that you end up giving yourself job after job after job that you didn't mean to give yourself. The job you had previously created for yourself and finally got good at is no longer your job because you are always scaling and hiring people behind you so you can move on to the next building block of the company. The career path of an entrepreneur is having that dream position, aiming for it, and then making it a reality. An employee at a company often sees their career path as a linear journey made up of hoops they have to jump through and people they must step over to get to the next step. Employees' ambitions seem to vary significantly because some are content in their position while others always want to climb the corporate ladder. Entrepreneurs are constantly evolving in pursuit of their dreams.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I was once working roughly 16 hours a day almost every weekday and even on the occasional weekend. I was getting virtually no sleep and entirely relied on caffeine to function. I had no idea how burnt out I was until I nearly killed myself while driving on the interstate. I was running late for an appointment because I had been sitting at my desk for too long. I needed to make a phone call to notify them that I was running late to my appointment–was driving around 80 mph on the interstate when I looked up from my phone to see that a string of cars had come to a complete stop.
I swerved to avoid crashing into the back of a truck, went up on two wheels on the left, and almost landed in a ditch. I ripped the steering wheel in the opposite direction, went up on two wheels on the right, and almost crashed into the line of stationary cars. My out-of-control swerving continued up the highway until I regained control of my vehicle.
I was so lucky that an entire lane had been cleared in preparation for upcoming construction, providing me with a clear runway and time to stop without, miraculously, causing injury to myself or anyone else. My reaction to the event was the scariest thing out of this whole situation. Once I had managed to come to a stop, I thought to myself, that was crazy. That's it. No adrenaline, no panic–just a dead thought that I just had a near-death experience. I felt nothing, and that was when I realized that I needed to start taking care of myself again.
Don't let a near-death experience be the catalyst for you to start putting your well-being first. You are your biggest asset. You are your company's biggest asset. Take care of yourself!