Starting a business is a declaration of independence. It means freedom from living by someone else’s rules, climbing the corporate ladder and doing something “the way we’ve always done it.”
When you pave your own path, you decide the speed limit, what’s on the radio and what kind of car to cruise. But even with a carefully plotted route, the destination is an unknown. The road inevitably leads to obstacles, second guessing and big personal risks.
The five independent meeting and event planners who are featured on the following pages are each at a different stage of their entrepreneurial journey. Some are just starting out, and some are seasoned business owners. All of them are adamant that it would have been impossible to go out on their own without a strong personal and professional network behind them. And not one of them feels any regret when they look in the rearview mirror.
Bold & Brave Events
Stephanie Montavon loved her job as a catering sales manager at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel. The relationships she developed working with corporate clients to book and deliver their events from start to finish was rewarding, and the structure of the position’s goals and bonus plan motivated her. Her career and skills had grown steadily since graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a hospitality management degree; she started in hotel operations and then jumped at the opportunity to become a catering sales manager. Eight years later in January 2017, she was in the middle of her term as MPI Pittsburgh’s president when she was let go from her job.
“I was completely blindsided,” says Montavon. “I was in a dark place.”
As she regained her footing and thought about her next steps, Montavon hesitated to give a corporation so much power over her life again. She and her husband had recently decided to start trying to have a baby, so she weighed the reliability of a steady paycheck against the flexibility in scheduling that being her own boss would offer. “I went back and forth, and I prayed about it,” says Montavon. “If I went back into hotel sales, who’s to say it’s not going to happen again? If I’m working for myself, then I am the driver. I decide what I can do and what I cannot do.”
Montavon had helped people plan events in her spare time for years, and her family has an entrepreneurial spirit. Her grandfather started his own barbershop, and her sister and both parents are also small business owners. “Because I’ve always had this passion and example of owning my own business, I had the power to make this happen,” she says.
The suddenness with which she lost her job meant that she had to start from “ground zero,” with no concrete plans in place. “You definitely need a network of family, friends and colleagues—whether it’s for support or referrals,” says Montavon. “I’ve definitely been blessed with both.”
Her family recommended an attorney and an accountant to help her navigate the process of getting her business off the ground. Emotional support from her husband inspired her to follow her passion and the safety net of his income enabled her to start the new venture. Connections made with industry suppliers and planners through MPI and during her career provided a sounding board for ideas and a valuable source of business referrals.
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it or fail, and I’m okay with that because I have support from the people who matter the most,” says Montavon.
There have been obstacles along the way, but they’ve also brought opportunities. Montavon’s background is in corporate meetings and events, but she’s found that market difficult to break into as an independent planner because many companies have in-house meetings departments or established relationships with large third-party planning companies. “That’s been a challenge, but it’s not going to stop me,” she says. She booked her first corporate client in August 2017, but before that she pivoted to expand her services to weddings and social events.
Montavon’s first booking came from a wordof-mouth referral soon after she announced that she was launching her own business. Before she completed her website, social media profiles or even her business documents, a bride was ready to book. “She wanted a contract, and at that point all I had was a flyer,” Montavon recalls. “I had to stay up late that night and put together a contract template and an invoice, but it was in her inbox in about 24 hours. I was not going to turn that away.”
That determination and the risks she’s facing to follow her passion are reflected in the name she chose for her business: Bold & Brave Events. “I’m bold and brave for stepping out of my comfort zone to do this on my own, and for deciding to stop doing what people tell me to do,” says Montavon. “I want me—and my clients—to be bold and brave together.”
DAVID COLE SNOOK
Mx2 Event Design
As the onboard director of events, programming and entertainment for three major cruise lines, David Cole Snook reveled in creating show-stopping experiences and unforgettable events for countless passengers during a nearly 30-year career. But one of his most memorable moments came during a simple conversation with a passenger while aboard a cruise in Alaska. That passenger, a wedding planner from Chicago, was convinced that Snook would be a natural in the profession. At that point, about nine years ago, Snook was invested in his career at sea, but the idea took root in the back of his mind and he kept in touch with the man that would one day become his mentor in the event planning business.
Gradually Snook decided that he wanted to return to his hometown in central Pennsylvania. “You realize at some point that you can’t live out of a suitcase your whole life. Plus, the industry changed, and I changed,” says Snook. He saw life as a meeting and event designer based in Harrisburg as a land-based continuation of the work he specialized in at sea for the cruise lines.
Once he made the decision to pursue that path, he slowly started to build the foundation of Mx2 Event Design. By scaling back his schedule at the cruise line to work onboard in only the winter, he managed a soft launch of his business during the busy summer event season and created a word-ofmouth buzz about his services and creativity. “I turned one faucet off and turned one faucet on,” says Snook. “I slowly transitioned to the new career.”
The gradual pace of growth also allowed Snook to entirely self-fund his business over time without loans or investors. By cutting back his hours at the cruise line, he was also cutting back his salary. That part of the transition, paired with the uncertainty of whether his business would succeed, was the source of a lot of anxiety when Snook was getting ready to make the leap. “It was very scary, and it was sometimes daunting to a point where I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ You get used to a certain standard of life, and then you have to make cutbacks,” he says. But three years later, he was confident enough with the groundwork he’d laid and the number of future bookings he’d secured that he officially launched Mx2 Event Design. “I was able to see that I could meet expenses without defaulting on my mortgage.”
This April, Snook will celebrate four years in business. He has consistently outperformed his booking goals and pace each year, working with private and corporate event clients. To support his work and to help him expand the number of events that he can design and manage, he’s hired two full-time staff members.
The corporate procedures and service standards that were integral to his job in the cruise industry made aspects of business development like marketing, the sales process, and customer service second nature for Snook. But learning payroll and navigating tax requirements were a “steep learning curve.” The personal investment and responsibility that Snook contributed to his business meant working many long days to balance the administrative, client-facing and on-site aspects of the operation. “I thought I worked long hours on a cruise ship, but this is so many more hours.” When he found himself losing focus and engagement during planning sessions, he made the decision to hire staff and make Monday his designated day off to rest and recharge.
“I refused to fail, and I was just determined to make this work,” says Snook. I put everything—my heart, my soul, my money—into this. I risked a lot. My mentor used to say to me, ‘No guts, no glory,’ and he was right.”
His relationship with his mentor changed and developed along with Mx2 Event Design. Early discussions were general and related to the basics of setting up a business plan. The conversations evolved over the years into marketing strategy, client approach and management, industry trends and professional development. “The more experience that I gain, it reveals what I haven’t quite yet mastered,” says Snook.
One thing he knows for sure: becoming an independent planner was the right decision. “For all of the sleepless nights, uncertainties and second guessing myself, looking at them now and seeing that I overcame them, I wish I would have started my business earlier,” says Snook. “People say it takes three to five years to build a business, and boy did that come true for me. I’m in a place right now where I’m really rocketing to growth. I’m not in a bad place, but I think, ‘If I would have done this 10 or 15 years ago, where would I be?’”
MAZDA T. MILES
When a seasoned executive seeks you out to say, “You were born to do this,” after attending a corporate retreat that you planned, you take notice.
“That sparked the validation for me. From that day forward, I decided to strategically align myself with meeting and event planning,” says Mazda Miles, who is now president and chief event strategist of Perfection Events in Philadelphia.
Miles, whose previous experience includes administrative support roles at two Fortune 500 companies, took hospitality courses at Drexel University and positioned herself as the “de facto meetings department” at those jobs.
At the same time, she made her dream of starting her own meeting and event planning business a reality by methodically putting plans in action to lay the foundation of her company. “You have to work as if you already have the big company,” says Miles. “You can’t be lazy with it and think, ‘When I quit, I’ll get started on things.’”
When her former employer announced that operations were moving to another state, Miles seized the opportunity to launch her business rather than relocate for the job. “By the time they came to me and said, ‘We’re moving, here are your options,’ I said, ‘Give me my package, I’ve got a company to run!’” recalls Miles.
She had already decided to call her business Perfection Events long before that day. “Every time I did an event or a meeting, it never failed that at the end someone would come up and say to me, ‘This was perfect.’ I just think that’s my calling card,” says Miles.
The business she started on her own in March 2010 now employs four staff members. “One of the things I learned in starting my own business is learning when to fire myself,” says Miles. “You cannot do it all, and you have to hire someone or source it out.”
She learned that lesson about two years into her venture when she was barely breaking even financially, and she found herself “completely overwhelmed with the administrative tasks.” With her background as an administrative assistant, she initially resisted seeking help with this aspect of the operations. When she finally realized that these tasks were holding her back from focusing on more lucrative priorities, she signed up for a $200 per-month virtual assistant service that gave her more time and added a professional polish to her client interactions. One month later, she landed her first “big” contract: a $60,000 deal, when her previous contracts had maxed out around $5,000.
That big contract also represented an impressive return on the $10,000 investment Miles had made in a sales training course she had completed not long before. As her father pointed out at the time, she could have searched for sales techniques on Google for free—but Miles knew it was important to have formal training. “People liked me, but I never got a contract signed. I needed to figure out how to close those deals,” she says. “It takes money to make money, and you have to invest in yourself.”
As president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, Miles is convinced that the time she spends mentoring and supporting others in their business efforts adds a huge value to her own company. “That network and resource, that sisterhood of women who are transparent and open to give you what they went through and how they made it through—it’s invaluable,” she says. Miles calls the women in this network her “confidants and cheerleaders.”
Miles has curated her successes and missteps in her blog, “Confessions of an Entrepreneur” (ConfessionsOf.me). It represents her experience as a small business owner, but she’s quick to point out that each person’s entrepreneurial path will be unique to their own definition of success and professional approach. Like she says in the title of one of her early posts, “First Rule: There Are No Rules!”
ABEER SROUJI ALLEN & TANIA SROUJI
Events by Eye Candy
Sisters Abeer Srouji Allen and Tania Srouji decided to start their own business so they could spend more time together and give back to their community while doing what they love. The events that they plan and the way they run their Mechanicsburg-based company, Events by Eye Candy, demonstrate to others how they too can take charge of their own life.
“We spend a lot of time building true relationships, and we hear about what’s going on in our community,” says Tania. “We try to take our passions and integrate them into the event while trying to figure out what the need is in the community.”
Together they’ve raised more than $200,000 in support of central Pennsylvania nonprofits through the annual events they envision and produce, including The Conference for Women … Be Extraordinary!, Central PA SuperChef, Homemade by SuperChef and the PA Bridal Exchange.
The events are all open to the public and have themes supporting personal and professional development. “We want to teach people that they can live their life by design, and not by default,” says Abeer. “You choose your life and how you want to live it.”
The sisters’ path to entrepreneurship echoes that mantra.
Their business started as a side project nine years ago specializing in custom jewelry and accessories to offer women high-end looks at affordable prices. At the time, the sisters, who are about a year apart in age, were both working corporate jobs. Tania’s background includes four years of service in the military, followed by 10 years in marketing at an engineering firm. When that job was sent overseas, she landed at an advertising agency but found herself facing a second layoff when the firm lost a client.
Around the same time, Abeer was contemplating a change of focus in her career after 17 years in banking working in finance, sales and marketing. The bank that she worked for had already gone through two transitions with another in the works, and Abeer wanted to immerse herself in the event planning world. She found the sales rallies that she organized at work and the events she planned to raise money for a local nonprofit exciting and satisfying work. About to get married and planning to start a family, Abeer left her job in 2013 so that she and her sister could add another division to the Eye Candy brand: Events by Eye Candy.
Now that Abeer and Tania each had an arm of the company that aligned with their passions, it was time to focus on managing that business. “It was a huge learning curve, and we made a lot of mistakes,” says Tania.
In the beginning, they struggled to find the right vendors to fit their brand. Neither had used QuickBooks, an accounting software program for small businesses, so they learned it as they went. One of their biggest challenges was managing their website. “We had invested all of this money into an amazing website, but we didn’t even know how to use it,” says Abeer. “We thought we needed all of the bells and whistles, but we really needed something that was more user friendly that we could update ourselves.”
Despite those obstacles, their events were a hit from the start—so much so that 800 attendees showed up to one of their first PA Bridal Exchanges, even though only 300 tickets were sold. The quick success taught them a lesson in thinking on their feet, and gave them more confidence in their business savvy. “In the beginning, we kind of treated things like a hobby,” says Tania. “Then you realize the magnitude of your events, and you prepare for it. Now we think about what we’ll do if nobody shows up, and also what we’ll do if 500 extra people show up.”
Today the sisters work together as a finely tuned machine to solve any problems that come their way, but it took time to settle into that rhythm.
“For being as close in age and as close in friendship as Abeer and I are, we actually work very differently,” says Tania. “It’s taken years to learn what Abeer responds to and what I respond to.”
For instance, Abeer typically arrives to a meeting with a pen and notebook in hand prepared to docu - ment every detail of a conversation. Tania usually borrows a piece of paper from her sister, grabs a pen and jots a few things down here and there.
“We have such different styles,” explains Abeer. “I’ll wake up with an idea for an event and will be so excited. I’ll have it all planned out by the time Tania wakes up, and she’s the one who says, ‘Slow down, let’s build a foundation.’”
At this point, they can easily divide responsibilities between themselves based on whose strengths are better suited to the task, and they find that having two partners with different approaches adds strength to their business. “The reality is that it doesn’t mean that she’s a better business owner than I am. It just means that we complement each other,” says Tania.
In the process of establishing a business, it can be tempting to make comparisons with the level of success others have achieved, but Tania and Abeer have found that Events by Eye Candy does best when they focus on their own vision and values.
“A lot of times in business you have some ideal person who you want to be like. You meet them and you think that their road was so easy, but everybody has a story,” says Tania. “Just remember that you’re going through your story, and there’s someone looking up to you and wishing that they could be doing what you’re doing.”
Deciding to start a business is an achievement of its own. “Be proud of what you’re doing,” says Abeer. “Take it one day at a time, and one step at a time.”