As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Coral Darby, founder of Darby Communications in Asheville, NC.
Coral always felt it is important to put people before profit, and when you do, profit follows. This belief goes back to her marketing internship at Patagonia in the early 90s. Darby spent a semester living in Yvon Chouinard’s guest house and one evening he joined her for dinner. Their conversation highlighted his humble nature and passion for the environment, and those principles still guide Darby’s career today.
Like Chouinard, Darby leads with humility and passion. She credits the agency’s success to an unwavering dedication to fostering relationships with clients, journalists, and her team. In twelve years, the company has grown from a one-person show to a ten-person agency with national and international clients. As with many service-based industries, Darby has seen a PR boom in the outdoor realm. To combat what is becoming an overcrowded field, she sees potential to scale the business by expanding its reach locally in Asheville and working with mountain lifestyle brands. “The audience for these brands and the outdoor industry often overlap,” states Darby. “While we’ll continue working within the outdoor industry, we want to grow in this new category while supporting our local economy.”
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I launched Darby Communications because I was motivated by a yearning to be an available mother and a successful businesswoman. To achieve the flexibility I desired, I knew I needed to buck the system and carve my own path. After a successful 5-year stint with a marketing firm pioneering their public relations department, I had the baseline skills and the tenacity to give it a go. So, in 2003 I left a secure position as a PR Director and converted the third bedroom of my home into Darby Comm HQ. Since then, I’ve never looked back. Between connecting myself with the right people, working with brands I admire, and putting a heck of a lot of elbow grease into the mission, I’ve achieved what I set out to accomplish; professional, financial independence. This commitment to do my own thing at a time when it was not the norm, especially as a woman, has been incredibly rewarding in more ways than I could ever have imagined.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My aha moment back was back in the early 2000’s when I experienced a series of events that appeared to be more significant than just coincidence and luck. As I worked diligently to advance my reputation as a PR Practitioner, I started to believe more and more in myself and my acquired skills. I decided in 2004 that I was having a moment, and it was then that I decided to launch Darby Communications. Timing is everything — I saw the path and didn’t doubt my vision, and everything else fell in place from there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
It was early in my PR career and I thought I could easily muscle my way into also being an event planner. How hard could it be, just plan something enticing and certainly folks will participate. I neglected to realize there needs to be a hook and if you build something it doesn’t necessarily mean people will come.
The evnet was a dunking booth at an outdoor demo the day prior to our marquee industry trade show. I had some big names lined up to sit in the booth, but I never gave folks a reason to want to soak them — so, my talent sat there dry as could be. Unfortunately, a tornado swept through Salt Lake City that afternoon (which was tragic), but it meant we had to leave our event and find shelter and it also saved me from utter embarrassment.
The lesson — connect the event to a cause or purpose and be sure people know the ‘why’. Also, and especially with outdoor events, have a plan B. Today we have professional event planners on staff at Darby Communications to ensure our media events are consistently home runs.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Darby Communications was launched back in the early 2000’s and at that time the vision was to create meaningful employment for myself while having the flexibility to be more available for my young daughters. That mission provided me with an education on what is important — especially now when the discussion is much less about me and more about our team and their well-being.
Today, the mission and purpose of Darby is to provide an enriching work environment that is supportive and fun, because work shouldn’t be a drag. We recognize professional accomplishments, make a big deal around work anniversaries, and always prioritize the work-life balance. The results have been remarkable with incredibly low employee turnover and a client retention rate that’s enviable!
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
It’s quite straight forward and simple, we follow through on our promises to staff members and clients. If we’ve offered a flexible work schedule then we honor it, if we’ve needed to make adjustments on billing rates, then we discuss months in advance with our clients. We approach all Darby Comm endeavors with integrity and full transparency.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes, change is inevitable and learning that from day one helps you endure the turbulence of running a business. There will always be ups and downs — that is a fact you have to learn to live with or you’ll drive yourself crazy riding the rollercoaster.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When business expanded to the point beyond me, I needed some assistance but I was too sacred to hire, so I linked up with a sub-contractor and tried to build the business from there. Unfortunately, the match was not ideal and eventually the client’s deliverables suffered. I made the difficult decision to part ways with this individual and it truly was the hardest conversation I’ve ever initiated in my career. I was anxious, afraid, and completely unaware of how I would muster the resources to hire my first full time employee. Eventually, I did figure it out and hired someone to work internally. We worked well together, and she actually works with us in some capacity still today. From there our agency continued to grow and build slowly to where we are today.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
In hindsight, my strategic decision to build from within has paid dividends and is the DNA of Darby Comm’s success. My original employee has been with me off and on for twelve years and is now our Controller. Another employee has been with us for ten years and is now our Vice President. Had I opted for sub-contractors instead of employees the current agency would look very different.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Understand your numbers — without this insight you are making blind decisions. Prior to my financial education I offered an employee much more than a fledging agency could afford. Per the advice of my accountant I had to reduce her salary by approximately 30%. That was a tough conversation to have.
- Have a focus. Define your niche early and grow from there. If you try to be everything to all kinds of businesses in multiple business sectors you will find it beyond frustrating (and expensive) to gain traction. From day one we’ve focused on representing outdoor and active lifestyle brands, and we now have tremendous respect as a top firm within the outdoor industry.
- Hire slowly, fire swiftly — a business coach once asked me if I would keep running if there was a pebble in my shoe, I of course answered no. Stop and clear that pebble, it will make the run that much smoother and enjoyable.
- Hire above your skillset in growth departments — I can genuinely say the individuals working in account leadership and digital marketing roles are much more talented in these fields than I am. When hiring, I look to create teams with complementary skill sets to advance our efficacies and develop departmental leaders. When you are in growth mode, it’s impossible to think one person can successfully manage all aspects of the business.
- Always innovate — There’s not a whole lot that changes within the service sector, so if you can figure out a way to deliver to your clients a little differently, that’s a huge differentiator for your business and will keep you ahead of the competition. In 2019 we honed our new, proprietary reporting system and to our knowledge no other PR agencies in our industry report with the same level of detail.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Lots of people have had an impact on my career, from business coaches, inspiring athletes, and even some clients. But, at the end of the day it’s my husband who has always been there for me. I can rely on him to bounce ideas, discuss strategic moves, assist with succession planning, and just simply be my voice of reason.
In the early years and as the agency was maturing, I travelled a great deal. I needed to be at sales meetings and trade shows, my presence at them was important for securing business contacts and closing deals. During those formidable years, my partner was always supportive and available to handle all the parenting. I am grateful for his commitment to our family and my professional growth; without his support I would not be where I am today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Darby Comm has a pro bono arm called the Stand Up Initiative and for the last four years we’ve focused on donating our services to nonprofits with an emphasis on protecting the environment. For 2021, we are expanding our reach and encouraging organizations with a focus on promoting diversity in the outdoors to also apply for the opportunity to be a part of this program.
I’d love to see our industry build upon Stand Up. What if other marketing-based companies joined us and we made it a national initiative? Let’s scale Stand Up so we can support multiple organizations fighting to protect our wild places and to ensure that they can be enjoyed by everyone without bias.
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