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Editor's note: The Harbert College of Business is committed to developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for students, faculty, industry, and alumni that will fuel new venture creation. The story that follows is one of eight in a series entitled, "Inspired Entrepreneurship." Showcasing the experience and expertise of Harbert alums who have created successful business enterprises of their own will help equip our students for entrepreneurial success.
“Follow your passion. Do what you’re passionate about and the rest will come. In my case the passion was about starting and running a business."”
Tara Wilson, CEO of the Tara Wilson Agency, didn’t start out on an entrepreneurial path early in her career, but the entrepreneurial spirit has been engrained in her well before graduating from the Harbert College of Business with a degree in finance back in 1997.
“When I was little, most girls played with dolls,” said Wilson. “Not me – I played business. I had carbon copy paper, a telephone and I’d make my own miniature credit cards – a complete fake business. And when I grew older, I was always finding ways to make money. So, for me, being an entrepreneur was in my DNA.”
Tara Wilson Events was founded in February 2007. After eight
The Harbert College of Business sat down with Tara, who was Auburn University Co-Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018, as part of its Harbert Entrepreneur Spotlight initiative to hear how her passion for business from a very early age has been a key driver of her ongoing entrepreneurial success.
HCOB: My first question for you is – what prompted you to leave a very successful career managing millions of dollars in assets for high net-worth individuals to start an events management firm, something you had no experience in at the time?
Wilson: I think it all came down to passion. That’s a word that gets tossed around a lot these days: “Follow your passion. Do what you’re passionate about and the rest will come.” In my case the passion was about starting and running a business. It wasn’t a passion for event planning – I had never even worked at an event planning company. I just knew instinctively I would be good at it.
HCOB: So, there you are, it’s 2007, the economy isn’t exactly on steady ground, and you started your firm – what was your process?
Wilson: I spent about six months preparing to make the leap, taking a three-pronged approach. First, I banked my salary so that I would have some start-up capital, realizing there wouldn’t be any revenue coming in right off. The second thing I did was to research the events planning marketplace – what the business looked like, how I could get plugged into that market, how to start a company in general, the nuts and bolts of getting a new business entity established legally. The third thing I did that was critical was to create my website and the marketing materials I would need to hit the ground running.
The Tara Wilson Agency prides itself in being woman-led and women-savvy. The
HCOB: I understand that it was just you for the first few years, right?
Wilson: That’s right. I often joke that when I used the term “we” early on, what I meant was “me, myself and I.” But it was just me for the first five or six years before I added a second person to my “team.”
HCOB: That must have been quite a switch, moving from a day-to-day working environment at one of the largest financial firms in the world to being – in effect – a solo practitioner?
Wilson: Yes, it was quite a shift, and the isolation was one of the things I didn’t expect – just how lonely it can be as an entrepreneur.
HCOB: Can you expand on that a bit? What do you mean by it being a “lonely” endeavor?
Wilson: Sure. I don't think I realized just how lonely it would be, the swing of emotions in a 24-hour period. These days, social media glamorizes so many things about entrepreneurship. It is nowhere near as glamorous as it may appear because the buck stops with you. You are the last person to be held accountable. At the end of the day it is on your shoulders and you have to be prepared for that. You don't take it home to your spouse, you don't take it to your friends, you don't spitball your concerns with your employees. There’s no one that builds you up and there is no one that tells you “Oh my gosh, you're amazing.” That was the most shocking part – I had no idea how isolated it can feel. You’re trying to push a giant boulder up a mountain every day, all by yourself.
“These days, social media glamorizes so many things about entrepreneurship. It is nowhere near as glamorous as it may appear because the buck stops with you. You are the last person to be held accountable. At the end of the day it is on your shoulders and you have to be prepared for that.”
HCOB: But you prevailed, you succeeded. Your business was making money for almost 10 years. And then comes 2015 and you decided to make a pivot, and a fairly substantial shift at that. Can you tell us why you made that move?
Wilson: The main thing was, even though I’d built a successful, viable business, I realized it wasn’t scalable – it couldn’t grow much further than it already had. It was a lifestyle business, really, and I wanted more. The main roadblock to further growth was that my clientele was individuals wanting to put on a single milestone event – a one-off celebration – with very little potential for repeat business. A successful engagement offered little opportunity to do another event for that client for years, if ever. I felt the business marketplace, on the other hand, offered a much more promising avenue for real, sustainable growth.
HCOB: Yet, the business marketplace is substantially different from the space you were operating in for almost eight years. How did you go about making that pivot?
Wilson: Again, I had a process, a pattern. I spent about six months working to make the change to an experiential agency serving big brands. I revamped my website so it would be ready to go at launch, explaining why I was changing our business model. I shored up our finances, knowing there would be a lag in our revenue stream as we moved from working with individuals to prospecting corporate clients.
HCOB: You describe your agency today as “experiential” – what do you mean by that and how are the services you offer corporations today different from what you previously offered individuals?
Wilson: Sure. Experiential marketing is also referred to as event-based marketing. The idea is to get your client's product or service in front of their consumers in an authentic and immersive way. We want the consumers of our client's brands to be able to touch, feel and experience the brand in the most immersive, authentic way.
Tara Wilson was once a Harbert College of Business Senator.
HCOB: That seems like quite a different objective than events management for individuals, involving a whole host of expertise you might not have on-hand. How did you bring those news capabilities to bear?
Wilson: We had proven ourselves as event planners, so I was confident in that aspect of our deliverable, but with experiential marketing, there's a tremendous amount of strategy and ideation that goes into it. So, I pulled in experts to assist with those elements where I didn't feel that I could deliver to make sure that we provided the best product possible. That meant that maybe my margins weren't as high – maybe I was breaking even on a project or two, but I was proving myself and building our portfolio.
HCOB: How did you get your first clients?
Wilson: My first client was Samsung, a connection I made through networking with some of my vendors. As I said, we had proven success as event planners – I was confident in that capability and expanded that confidence into the other components of our experiential marketing offering. I have to say that is one of the key elements of success as an entrepreneur – you have to have an unwavering belief in your ability.
HCOB: Can you tell us a bit more about that “unwavering belief in your ability”? Where did that come from, and did your time at Auburn have anything to do with that?
Wilson: To begin with, I wasn’t exactly a star pupil early on at Auburn. I think that when you’re a college student, you’re really trying to figure out who you are and establish your way in the world. It wasn’t until my junior year that I really hit my stride. I decided to run for Senator at the College of Business and won. That experience gave me the opportunity to connect with the students, connect with the faculty and administrators. It really bolstered my confidence because I found a place I could contribute. I’m sure that had I not become a Senator, I would have graduated with a lot less confidence.
The Tara Wilson Agency is an experiential
HCOB: What role, if any, did the Auburn Creed play into your success as an entrepreneur?
Wilson: I think that the first preamble of the Auburn Creed crystalizes a lot of my experiences with becoming an entrepreneur: “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.” That really resonates with me. Like I said earlier, as an entrepreneur, the buck stops with you. No one is going to bail you out. No one is going to figure it out for you. I’m not afraid of hard work, of asking the tough questions, of pursuing the grand opportunities. You can’t be afraid of taking on the big issues and the work it takes to address them and succeed as an entrepreneur.
HCOB: Do you have any final advice for Harbert students and other aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Wilson: “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” That’s one of my favorite maxims. It really sums up the passion and commitment required to be an entrepreneur in today’s highly competitive business world.