October is Small Business Month in Canada! This month is dedicated to honouring Canadian entrepreneurs and celebrating small businesses for all that they do. We sat down with our very own Melissa Durrell, President and Chief Communications Strategist of Durrell Communications, to talk about her journey as an entrepreneur.
Q. Where did your professional career start? What inspired you to start Durrell Communications and make the switch from Journalism?
A. I started as a journalist and worked across the country as a reporter. I was always really interested in understanding where people were coming from and telling their stories. Around 2010, I was covering a lot of politics as a journalist, and I realized I wanted to switch into the political landscape. In the fall of 2010, I ran for City Council in Waterloo. At that point, I was a full-time reporter, but after being elected to a part-time role in City Council, I started Durrell Communications. I was on my own for about a year and the company started to grow to include my first hire within the first year. 10 years later, we have 12 employees. We’re not only doing media training and media management, but communications in general.
Q. Why did you choose Waterloo to launch your business?
A. The minute I moved here, I fell in love with Waterloo. After living and working at CTV in Saskatoon, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Sudbury and finally, Kitchener/Waterloo, I knew I wanted to establish myself as part of Uptown Waterloo and the community. I think of it as a small Ottawa. It’s a university town: every September, the city comes alive with students with our two universities and our college. It always feels like there’s a fountain of youth here.
I love innovation. We call this the creative capital of Canada for a reason. Great ideas come out of it. When I first moved to this community, Blackberry was the only smartphone on the market and it was such an exciting city to be a part of with so many smart people.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q. What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning of your journey?
A. As a journalist, I had a limited business background. I was really good at finding the right people to talk to and interviewing them and getting their stories. That was and still is one of the core things I’m good at. Although I’d never run a business before, I come from entrepreneurial roots. My family had had businesses in the past, so I was really lucky that my father, who is my main mentor in life, could also be one in business.
Getting involved in the tech scene here in Waterloo Region has taught me a lot about business, especially from coaching companies on their pitches. At several of the Accelerator Centres in town, I work with companies that know the problem they’re solving and the solution, but often need to look closer at their value proposition, what market they’re going into, what’s the total addressable market, and what their market is. From here, I started to look at my own company and put it into the same terms which was really helpful!
All in all, I’ve been able to overcome many challenges by learning from my peers, connecting with media managers on a regular basis, using my journalism skills as a researcher, being committed to learning, and reading many books on running a business. Continuing to hone these skills and relationships has really helped us grow to the company that we are today.
Q. What strategies did you first use to grow Durrell Communications?
A. Growth was really interesting for me because I knew exactly what I was good at, which was media training and media management, a space I knew because I’d been doing it as a journalist. But a big part of communications is a more comprehensive approach with strong writing skills, social media and marketing insights etc. So I think for me, it was really learning all the different aspects of what our company should have.
Word of mouth was the strategy I used the most, growing our company through connections with organizations we’d worked with in the past. It was important to understand what we did really well so we could communicate that to other organizations and how we could help them.
Building a strong team was also important. I tried to hire other journalists and great writers. I thought ‘I could teach other people how to do what I do’, but I can’t teach them to be great writers and that was a baseline for me. It’s nice to have others to go to for different ideas and people with different experiences. Building a strong management team has helped significantly. I can’t run this company by myself and so I needed strong, different kinds of thinkers on my management team. Building that up was a big strategy for us to be able to move forward.
Q. What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?
A. I think for me it’s the independence. I love being able to lead a group of people. I get really excited when we finish a project and it’s amazing, and the company’s in a better place because we got to work with them.
The best thing is working with all these incredible organizations that are making the world a better place. Some of these tech companies are going to be a part of the solution for climate change, or they’re part of a solution around social justice. There are so many incredible companies that we get to help on their journey as they make the world a better place.
Q. What are the qualities of a good entrepreneur? What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A. I really embraced this idea of not taking no for an answer, and that’s a really important quality for an entrepreneur to have. You’re looking for solutions all the time and that if somebody says, no, it might be a soft no when it comes to the business world and that you can continue to work with them.
Constructive criticism is another really important part of being an entrepreneur. You have to be able to hear the things that you’re going to improve on. As an entrepreneur, you’re often on your own. You have to look for constructive criticism and actually work with what you learn.
You also have to be okay with a little bit of risk, leaving a full-time job with a pension and all the great things and trading that for essentially what you’re making that month. But you still have vision and the belief that you can build something better.
Q. Why is it important to celebrate Small Business Month?
A. Small businesses are the backbone of this country. Entrepreneurs spend their lives working on those companies to grow them. They hire amazing people, amazing teams, and they’re putting out incredible products and services. We should be celebrating this because not everyone’s going to be a 500 plus organization. When you line us all up, these small businesses are making incredible impacts in our own communities, but also around the world.
And so we need to celebrate them. It’s not easy. I read a statistic that very few small businesses make it past that five-year mark, and we popped a bottle of champagne when we did. I do think it’s important to celebrate and showcase these small businesses. We need to spotlight the amazing women and men that are running these businesses.
Want expert advice for your business? Reach out to Melissa and our team at Durrell Communications to put your vision into action — visit our website for more.