Theckla Sterrett began her communications and marketing agency with $500 in 1983. Last year, Saturday Brand Communications earned $1.5 million in billings and is looking to double that this year. Crain’s Charlotte recently caught up with Sterrett to talk about launching her own agency—back when there were only two women-owned agencies in Charlotte—the best (and worst) things about owning your own business, and how science and marketing are more similar than you might think.
Q: You began your career doing scientific and medical research at the University of Virginia. What drew you to biology and medical research?
A: From the time I was in junior high school, I was put on this path for all sorts of science courses. When I went to Queens University, I majored in biology. After college, my husband was going to law school at the University of Virginia, so I started working in medical research there. We were doing some really groundbreaking research at the time and it was so exciting to be there.
When we moved to Charlotte, there wasn’t an academic medical center for me to do basic science research, and I didn’t want to do clinical research. I took a job doing heart-related research, and I got really tired of being in the library a lot of the time. It wasn’t quite as exciting as being in the lab.
Q: Your next phase was at your alma matter, Queens University. How did that role help shape your career?
A: Queens hired me because I had gone to school there. I started taking all these career planning courses, and they all kept pointing to advertising and marketing. I started working on my MBA and I fell in love with it. If you love research and you have an investigative mind, it leads you to marketing strategy. Marketing is really about trying to understand what motivates people to buy things. I’ve always been an advocate for research for all of my clients. What drove people to certain hospitals? What were they looking for in services?
It’s so interesting to me; investigating people’s buying habits is similar to doing medical research. You have a hypothesis, then you go see if you’re right. Sometimes, you have this idea of what will work and it doesn’t work at all – or it works really, really well. Sometimes you have to test several strategies. It’s not all black and white.
Q: What pushed you to open up your own business?
A: I was pregnant when I left my jobs at Queens. I wanted to work for a bank. I think it was because Charlotte was a banking town. But no one was hiring pregnant women back in those days.
After my daughter was born, I wanted more flexibility. I joined a consortium of women. We all had different skills – marketing, writing, creative. We pitched clients together and we shared the little money that we made. At some point, that group just fell apart. That’s when I started my agency, and it just grew and grew and grew. I put together this really creative, strategic agency. That was really lonely and really hard. When I had my original business, there were only one or two women-owned advertising businesses in Charlotte.
Q: What advice do you have to someone who is perhaps thinking about going out on their own or shifting career paths dramatically?
A: If you have a real passion for something, which I found that I did, and you have the tenacity because it takes a lot of tenacity, there’s nothing more rewarding than starting your own business and watching it grow and prosper. It’s a risk and you’re really putting yourself out there.
It’s a lot of taking one step forward and a step back. The most rewarding thing for me is when I find a client who treats us as a true partner; someone who believes in you and lets you do your job.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in entrepreneurship?
A: Sometimes, the most difficult part is the day-to- day running of the business, keeping the cash flow going and the agency sound. I think that can be the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs.
Q: If people were considering starting a business in Charlotte, how would you pitch them?
A: Charlotte is very inclusive. When we moved here, people just welcomed us with open arms. It’s a wonderful, progressive city. It’s welcoming, and the economy is growing like crazy. It’s one of the best places in America to run a business. It started out as a town of 250,000 when we moved here, and now there are 800,000 people. You have a small-town atmosphere, but in a big city.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mispelled Theckla Sterrett's name. We sincerely regret the error. The story has also been updated to more accurately reflect some of her statements.