Before launching Harris Media Services in Yarmouth, Maine, Alison Harris was editor, then publisher of business newspapers for IT support and CRM/contact center professionals. She developed trade shows and conferences, wrote countless articles, and traveled the country to meet with and report on leading technology companies. She now helps B2B companies with promising technologies and services grow by making the right impression on the right people. She works with her clients to develop media, content, and marketing strategy.
Joyce Brown: What was your biggest hurdle when you first decided to start your own business?
Alison Harris: Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle was just deciding to do it. I loved my old job at United Publications. I felt secure and there was definitely potential for growth, but I needed to take the leap. It was scary because I'm the primary breadwinner for my family, but I kept telling myself that it wasn't a prison sentence. If it wasn't working, I'd go and get another job.
Joyce: Now that you've been successful for fifteen years, what's been the biggest reward?
Alison: The biggest reward is knowing that I can do anything once I set my mind to it. I was at a successful company and I learned a lot about running a business. It wasn’t until I went out on my own that I realized there was a lot I didn't know. For example, my old boss was always telling me about cash flow. I understood what he meant, but I didn't really get it until I started my own business. There were times when there was tens of thousands of dollars on the book, but I was putting my groceries on a credit card. That's when I understood the meaning of cash flow. It was personal.
The other rewarding part of my job is helping people grow their businesses, and it's really fun! It feels great to see companies I’ve helped still growing and being successful. That keeps me keep coming back time and time again.
Joyce: What's your most memorable experience from reporting on leading technology companies?
Alison: What I remember the most was hopping on a plane and going to all the big companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Word Perfect, and IBM. I'd get to go to these places and interview the top level executives in the IT support arena. This was also during the time that Microsoft had sort of a bad reputation for working with the media, but they decided to soften the situation by coming out with a program for journalists called, Microsoft Immersion. We stayed on campus and got introduced to everyone and had meetings. I remember thinking that it was so cool that I was invited to go.
The other part that makes it memorable was the whole travel experience. This was before 9/11. Travel was so different. We figured out every single angle on how to get the most value from plane tickets, and how to get into first class. I would say to my colleagues, ‘All right, who else is going to San Francisco?’ and we'd buy the tickets. One part of the ticket was used to get there, and the return trip might not be used until a month later. We had desk drawers full of half tickets. We'd fly using each other's names and it just didn't matter. It was crazy, but it was also fun to try to see how you could get the best perks for the least amount of money.
Joyce: Who was the biggest influence in your career?
Alison: There were three people. The first was my older sister. I watched her have so many fun and interesting experiences in life because she always said, ‘Yes’. She really inspired me to be less cautious in that manner. The second person was my boss at United Publications. He was someone that valued idea generation. You could go into his office with an idea and he’d always listen and, a lot of times, he’d let you try your idea. He was very encouraging, and that left a lasting impression on me. The third person was my colleague at the same company. He eventually left and started his own PR firm in the golf industry. Those are the three people that inspired me, and influenced me the most.
Joyce: What’s the best team you've ever been a part of?
Alison: It was at United Publications when we were launching a new trade show for the IT support market. I was working on the launch with the publisher and the conference manager, and at that point I was the editor. We were all working towards the same goal, and we all believed so strongly in the results. It was at the dawn of the CRM era. We'd secured some big hardware vendors, like Hewlett Packard to be part of the show. A lot of the attending companies were just beginning to make a lot of money in their support divisions. Launching the trade show was a huge risk, but it was rewarding and so much fun.
I don't have that same type of experience now because I work with so many individual companies, but I really try to capture that spirit. You want to be working toward a common goal. You want to be invested in its success. You want to believe that it can succeed, and you want to have as much fun as you can while doing it.
Joyce: What are you bad at that you’d love to be great at?
Alison: One of the things I'm not necessarily bad at, but I want to get better at is deciphering Google Analytics. I probably understand fifteen percent of it, but that fifteen percent I do understand, I'm using it to refine and hone the concept of "agile marketing". You don't want to do things because you've always done them. You want to keep trying new things, and adopt the ones that work. Although Google changes algorithms frequently, I'm finding over time, the changes are almost always favorable for me and my clients. I'm always advising people not to write content just to add the right keywords, but to write in a way that's useful and readable. The most recent algorithm rewards that. It prioritizes intent over the actual keywords or phrases. For instance, Google is now looking for long keywords, semantic relevance, or synonyms. In other words, Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI).
I have to include something else. I work with a lot of startups and emerging companies, and sometimes they don't succeed. It's hard to see someone fail. I struggle with that. What I'd like to be better at is not taking it personally. I always try to take the lesson from it and move forward, but that takes a lot out of me. That's hard.
Joyce: What's the best piece of advice you've ever read, heard, or received?
Alison: I believe you need different advice at different points in your career. When I was a full time working mother, the best advice I heard at that point was: You can have it all, you just can't have it all at once. Whenever I'd feel guilty about not pursuing my career more fully, I would remind myself to make room in my life and the things I wanted would eventually come. Then, once I started my business I was always saying, 'Yes'. I didn't want to limit myself, so I thought that was good. As I grow my career and do things to adjust to the market, I remind myself that I just have to start. It's like exercising. You've got to get up and do it every day and over time, you'll see results.