How I Started My Own Digital Marketing Business

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Shama Hyder graduated at the top of her class — twice — and still faced 18 job rejections after receiving her master’s. The problem? She wanted to go into social media marketing before social media had become an integral part of every business — no one really knew what it was yet. So she started to blog, which turned into the bestselling book The Zen of Social Media Marketing and clients came knocking on her door asking her to help them with their online presence.

Today, Hyder is the CEO of Marketing Zen Group, and she’s been recognized as a leader in digital marketing trends by Business Week, Forbes, Bloomberg, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company. She has traveled the world as a keynote speaker — leading discussions everywhere from the White House to Cairo — and is a regular contributor to Fox Business, CBS, and MSNBC.

Hyder, 29, reflects on the value of a bicultural education, the motivation that comes from rejection, and the joys of a virtual office.

I moved to the U.S. from India when I was 9. Moving to another country is culturally such a shock at that age. I went from being surrounded by a lot of family to being an immigrant latchkey kid responsible for my younger sister. It forced me to learn a lot about myself. Eastern education is very much about discipline and how well you can follow directions. Western education is about creativity, independence, and teamwork. I got the best of both worlds. It shaped me in the way I think and made me very curious.

Initially I went to school at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. It was very prestigious. I thought I would go into the consulting world. I quickly realized that’s not really what I liked as much as I liked the communications school. I had taken a few classes, and I wanted to switch majors, which was shocking to a lot of people. People work so hard to get into the business school. My counselor made me think about it for two days before she would let me switch majors.

To earn money during college, I worked as a private teacher for students with learning disabilities. Parents would hire me to help with their home schooling. I found my first job through Craigslist, and the kids and parents really liked me. It led to multiple clients.

I graduated in 2006 with a degree in corporate communications and went straight into the master’s program in organizational communications at the same school. My graduate advisor was an amazing, brilliant woman who I learned a lot from. She taught me how to hold myself in the professional environment, and she supported my thesis, which was unconventional at the time. I wanted to go to Las Vegas to attend the New Media Expo in 2007 to write about this new thing called Twitter. She convinced the department to give me my thesis stipend so I could attend. I wrote my thesis on Twitter and its users’ perception of time. I also inquired why people even bother using social media.

When I graduated with my master’s, I interviewed with all the top-consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Bain, and none of them had digital departments like they do now. I was applying for consulting positions. I wanted to work in the digital space. I figured it would be stronger at the Fortune 500 companies — as in they would be on board — but most recruiters I spoke to didn’t know what I was talking about. I also looked at marketing and PR positions, but they were all focused on traditional [strategies].

I had 18 job rejections because [those companies] didn’t get social media. The industry didn’t really exist yet. Some of the recruiters didn’t even know what Twitter was. But I knew that it was going to change the world. I could see that a small minority of people were obsessed with social media — this sense of connecting with each other — and it was growing.

It was so scary and depressing. I had a 4.0 GPA, graduated top of my class in undergrad and grad school, but I had no job. There was no industry for what I wanted to do. So I moved back home to Dallas and started my own company.

My first step was starting a blog called After the Launch. I was writing about everything I knew, such as digital marketing, social media presence, and search. I kept it broad business advice because I was scared of niche-ing it down to marketing and alienating potential clients. But I eventually embraced focusing on marketing, because it was what people kept turning to me for. I started getting clients because people would contact me and ask me to help them with their businesses. It was consulting work. People read the blog posts and approached me for my expertise. I charged them for it. Voilà! Business.

(Heather Wood Rudulph)

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