Episode #1: Starting an agency with a student ID and $1500

Sitting alone in a one-room office at 275 Hill Street in Reno, I’d wondered if I had done the right thing. It was June 1991 and I had just left my job as director of marketing at Saint Mary’s Health System to start Stephanie Kruse and Associates (SKA). I had also just (finally) gotten my MBA from the University of Nevada, and in fact had been able to use my student ID to get a discount on my company’s only major asset, a Macintosh computer. Everything else for the office was purchased at a second-hand furniture store, so I had coughed up a whopping $1500 in total to start the company.

I had a simple business plan: get clients who could appreciate and use my kind of help (and be willing and able to pay for it).  I had interacted with many PR and advertising firms while at Saint Mary’s and I didn’t see anyone in the market who was truly doing work that was strategy-based.  This was my sweet spot. In fact, when I did a competitive scan in the months prior to taking the leap, I saw a gap and decided that SKA would fill it.

Thank goodness for ego and blind courage. And the ability to breathe through periods of extreme anxiety. I was, after all, a one-person, woman-owned business, and immediately was competing with large agencies with years of history and lots of existing relationships. 

I, fortunately, had secured one client, REMSA/Care Flight – the region’s emergency medical services provider, even before I hung out my shingle. They are still a client to this day, something that makes me proud and humbled. 

The plan: I had to procure more business. Immediately. I used a “show people what you can do” model to get myself better known, so I did a lot of pro bono community service work for nonprofits in the first year. It showed that SKA would do what we said we would do, even when doing it for no pay. I also really enjoyed that kind of work since giving back was a big part of my fabric.

Even so, sitting alone in my office, it’d give me a thrill whenever the phone would ring. My favorite caller was my dear friend Bob Felten, who, after I answered “Stephanie Kruse and Associates,” would politely ask to speak to an associate. I’d make the sounds of pretend-running down the hall and back, and hop back on the phone as an “associate.”  Bob got to talk to some very interesting characters during that time. 

Eventually, I began building my client base, and rather quickly. The Reno-Tahoe International Airport had approached me within a month of starting SKA, to help them with a complex project to recruit Alaska Airlines to build a facility in Reno. It was my first foray into economic development and marketing a “place.” Happily, the airport is also still a client. 

So,  I hired a bona fide employee, then another, then another. We started working with Dickson Realty, and got our first State of Nevada account, the Safety Consultation and Training Section. They both are still clients today. 

We grew quickly, continued to keep strategy as our core, and grew with the normal bumps and bruises along the way, as many companies do when faced with rapid growth. 

Moral of Episode 1 – Courage and the ability to tolerate extreme anxiety about the unknown are very helpful traits for an entrepreneur.  But, always have a plan. And a plan B. And C. And C and a half.

Also, be sure to check out Episode 2 Stories of interesting moments with clients and wanna-be clients.

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