Melissa Alam‘s ambition helped drive the launch of a branding agency, a coworking community, a live conference, and a set of lifestyle businesses that have brought her all over the world.
More about today’s guest:
From 2820 radio in Philadelphia, it's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs and their challenges. Joe: Ambition, it's fuel for entrepreneurs, and for a self prescribed ideaholic like Melissa Alam, it's the driving force behind the launch of a branding agency, a co-working community, a live conference and a set of lifestyle businesses that have brought her all over the world. Along the way Melissa's discovered her voice and her point of view about what it takes to construct brands that stand up for what their leaders believe in. She's also learned how to make hard choices in the service of staying focused on her goals. It's the story of Femme & Fortune, coming up next on The Build. Announcer: The build is made possible with support from 2820 Press. Providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer obsessed companies nationwide. More information at 2820press.com. Joe: Welcome Melissa to The Build, how are you today? Melissa Alam: Good, how are you? Joe: Excellent, so this is a rare occasion, we're in the same town, but we're connecting over Skype because we're both running around like crazy folks today. Melissa Alam: Well that's how it usually happens. Joe: Tell me what a typical day looks like for you as a brand strategist. Melissa Alam: Well, a typical day I wake up whenever I wake up, usually that's between either seven or 10am. I'm not much of a morning person, and I start my day by going to a coffee shop of choice, or working from home. I did have a co-working space that we'll probably talk about later but right now I'm just hopping around different coffee shops or working with other freelancers that are my friends and yeah, it's pretty much just staying there and then there's a mixture of meetings throughout the day. Sometimes I will break up the day and go for a run or do something random or athletic. There's events at night and yeah, just kind of, no day is the same which is exciting. That's kind of why I like the lifestyle, just because I'm not a creature of pattern or habits, so I like to do things completely different each day. Joe: So looking at your LinkedIn you've got five current active engagements. If we're introduced to each other at a networking event, how do you introduce yourself? How do you tell me what it is that you do? Melissa Alam: Oh man, it's so hard. I usually get pretty awkward and just be, I just say, "Yeah, I do a lot of random things." That's how I describe the multiple projects that I'm involved in, but I typically say that I have my own business and I do freelance, strategy and consulting for clients and creative services. And then from there, that leads into some of the other projects that I'm working on. So yeah, I typically start with saying that I have my own business. Joe: So you worked for somebody for a couple of years before you went out on your own. When you decided to launch your own business, walk me through that decision process. How did you know you were ready to start becoming an entrepreneur? Melissa Alam: So I am a quite of a leaper when it comes to making decisions. I don't have a problem making decisions but I make them pretty quickly. So the last full time job I had I just decided that it wasn't working and I just kind of quit. From there, I got my first freelance client to make her website that same week, and that was it. I just started the process of starting my own business and becoming my own boss from there and so it was a pretty quick decision. I didn't really take to much of time to think about it but I made the decision and then I just followed through. It was, you know every night I was reading up on best practices for like client management or how I needed to invoice. I was always just teaching myself what to do. And then for income I was just getting odd jobs. I started working at a restaurant just for some money until I could be fully freelance and on my own. Joe: So what's the ideal client for you? Who do you feel like you can serve the best? Melissa Alam: My clients range in industry. I am doing a lot of real estate randomly this year. I've never really done a lot of real estate branding or web design. I would say my ideal client is someone with a creative business. I love working with small businesses or entrepreneurs. Someone with a budget, someone who has an exciting concept or idea that I believe in. A project that has a lot of room for improvement when in terms of out of the branding or the web strategist or the social media strategy. Ideally I'd love to have the client be open to the ideas and work with me and trust me in the ideas that I present. Joe: So I think especially in the real estate sector. Are there specialties that you look for? More specifically, how do you get folks in what's considered to be a fairly stodgy industry to embrace really evocative branding? Some of the things that you do that are in your style are very fashionable, very forward thinking I can just imagine what kinds of pitch meetings you must go through. Melissa Alam: Yeah, I mean for the real estate clients that I'm working with now. I think that's what they want, is to stand apart from their competitors. I think the real estate industry is overlooked when it comes to branding and I think the people in the companies now, are really, they are realizing that and they want to look different. And they want to have a more modern look and a more modern feel on their website. So for me to present to them, I haven't had a lot of backlash at all. Which is great, they've been loving the ideas. Most recently I helped brand, or I branded the, a new set of apartments in Manayunk so I am going to have to drive by to see if my logo is on the building or what not. It's pretty exciting, I think it's a really exciting industry where there is so much room for thinking outside of the box and being creative. And there is also a ton of budget which is great. It's a good mixture for a client. Joe: So, one thing that guests on our show often talk about is when they make physical products or where they see that manifestation of something they've worked on in the real world and I think for you that also comes together in the form of events. So tell me a little bit about the Fearless Conference. Melissa Alam: Yeah, so the Fearless conference was, it was my baby, it is my baby. It was, I have been attending a lot of conferences. I am a huge believer in investing in yourself especially as a freelancer or an entrepreneur. So I have been traveling to go to different conferences when I can. So I have been to LA. I've been to Chicago, DC and New York for events. I wanted to create something of my own here in Philadelphia and I had the brands and the community around it so that's how the Fearless Conference was born. Melissa Alam: It was a all day conference on a Saturday, in November. We had about 130 women attend, we had over 16 speakers. Two keynotes from New York who are great, Miki Agrawal of THINX and Naama Bloom of HelloFlow came. The rest of the speakers were more local and it was great. We had panels, we had women talk about self empowerment. We had lunch that was deliciously catered by Sweet Green. And we had a lot of room for networking, we had a photo booth. There was a mixture of a lot of fun activities and a lot of learning inspiration. And because the crowd was just so enthusiast they were, it was just really good energy in the room. So I'm actually posting the conference again for this October. I'll be selling tickets to it and kind of starting to promote soon. But I am working now on the backend logistics in terms of getting sponsors and speakers set. It's been amazing, it's one of my biggest events and I just hope it gets bigger each year. Joe: So thinking about how big it could get, you know what's your ideal number of attendees for the next conference? Melissa Alam: I would love to have 200 for the next one just because that's how much the space I am looking at can host. But, I think maybe by year three or four I would love to have 500 and maybe in a different city just because the lessons we learn throughout the conference. I mean, topics range from personal branding to knowing your worth to, what else did we have, a lot of just female empowerment workshops. So to be able to you know host that in a different city and to a new community would be great. Joe: Tell me a little bit more of the gap that you feel you're filling with this conference compared to some of the other things that are competing for your attendees time and attention. Melissa Alam: Yeah, I think, I mean I am not the first one to create initiatives for women, but I think I am creating them in my own voice and style which resonates with a whole new demographic of women. So there's a lot of great networking groups and a lot of great clubs and meetups for women. But what I feel like I am providing is a updated voice for that as well as a voice from a female from a minority background as well. That a lot of women can relate to, so my parents were immigrants, and the way I host my events is in a really fun casual way. I mean I host my events like the way I would want to attend an event. Yeah, I think I provide a fresh perspective on the types of areas I'm touching, the types of people I'm touching. So I think people have been really finding that approachable and I hope to continue that. Joe: Great, what are some of the changes you think you'll make? What are some of the things that you learned from the last go-round? That you know now you are going to do a little bit differently? Melissa Alam: I think the biggest change is to start hiring people. I've always been just bootstrapping and using the money that I make from freelance work to just put back into my business. So I haven't been able to grow as fast as I can. Just because the capital hasn't been there, but I really hope that I can take things to the next level with either some larger sponsorships or some investment or a partner. Because I have been just very, very independent with most of my businesses and I would love to bring on a partner to kind of help out and share the reins and responsibility's. Joe: So let's speak to that independence for a bit, so what drives you? What makes you just want to just take those reins and pursue the things that you are passionate about? Melissa Alam: You know I actually, I was just at this retreat in DC this past weekend, on personal development. And a lot of things became so much clearer in my mind after this retreat. And I realized the reason why I have been building communities is because I never grew up with a community. I moved around a lot and because of that I had to start over at each significant point in my life. In kindergarten I moved to a new school, in 8th grade, in High School I was in a new location. And then I started college in a new city. Melissa Alam: So in very significant points of my life I've had to start over and build my own community. And so I think that's what drives me, is I've wanted to attach myself to a community and so I've always been pretty entrepreneurial and pretty interested in leadership rolls. I think it's, and I've always volunteered and just raised my hand first to do something. I took the reins and started all of these initiatives just because I knew I had the capability and the knowledge of how to do it. Or not so much the knowledge, I think it's a lot of trial and error. It was something that I felt so passionate about and something that I wanted to learn more about and grow with. Melissa Alam: So yeah, I ... That was a big realization for me I'm like, "Why do I start all of these things." I've always been pretty independent. I think my parents taught me lessons of independence as a child. And I am a die hard Leo, I am going to bring the Zodiac in here, because I love it. I'm a independent Leo woman, so I don't know. I think and it's not like I don't like to work with people. I love collaborating but I know that I'm also very strong as a leader. I'm not working on a lot of collaborations with people so I can kind of not take too much responsibility and burn myself out. So I am trying to flip it over and work with more people now. Joe: So how do you actually approach a collaboration when you are accustomed to calling all of the shots yourself? How do you find that middle ground with a partner? Melissa Alam: Yeah, so I actually am hosting an upcoming event for Philly Tech Week on May 4th. And I was going to host it under my company Femme & Fortune by myself but I decided to bring in a partner for the event. He has, his name is Jonathon, he has a marketing agency, and I thought it would be really fun. I mean there's really no connection to either of our businesses or there is no connection to him and the topic per se, the topic is: Career transitions and how to deal with them. But I thought it would be a good lesson for me to learn on how to collaborate and find the middle ground with someone and kind of balance out the responsibility. Melissa Alam: I literally just texted him and I said, "Hey, I have an idea, would you be interested in co-hosting this event? We can split the profit, we can split the responsibilities, but I think it would be a cool event to co-host, and we can see what else we can co-host from there." So it was just a simple text and I gave him the details and I had already planned and gotten the speaker so most of the work was done, so obviously he was like, "Yeah, I'm in." He's been a great help so far. Melissa Alam: So yeah I just think you don't have to wait for some you know huge light bulb for you to collaborate. I think if you are open to working with someone and you think you know your personality matches and you appreciate how they work and their work ethic. I think it could be a seamless way to collaborate. Joe: So on your website you write about being a ideaholic. How do you filter what are the ideas worth pursuing and what are the things you might need to put on the back burner? Melissa Alam: That's such a problem and it's something I am still figuring out. I guess being an ideaholic, how I filter everything is I have these crazy ideas and I typically write them down in this multiple ... I actually have many notebooks around my house just random ideas floating through them. And how I filter is whether or not you know, can I afford to do this now? Is it a logical move or do I need to do a few steps before. Melissa Alam: Or I talk it out with a bunch of my friends who are so used to, they are usually like, "Melissa enough with your ideas, just get some work done." You know I think having my core group of friends tell me, give me some insight because I am just the Tasmanian devil sometimes when I feel really inspired and I'm just like, "Oh my god I have this great idea, I am going to host this conference, and all this stuff." Melissa Alam: And then I have much more level headed friends that kind of tell me, "All right, slow down Melissa." And so that really helps, but other than that I think that's why I'm addicted to what I do is because I've been able to create something from nothing from a lot of these businesses. I've been able to create a community out of nothing. So I am not afraid of ideas because I feel like I can achieve them. And if I can't then I'll find someone else that can help me with it. So it's exciting and also just sometimes exhausting because I am just like, "Ah, I want to do so many things," but another year, another day. Joe: Well you mentioned earlier that you were searching for community and one of the experiments you tried was The Hive, which was a co-working space in Philadelphia. Tell us a little bit about what prompted you to experiment in that space, how it grew and what you learned from the experience. Melissa Alam: I love how you say it was an experiment. It was an experiment actually and an experience. So The Hive was something that came, it was a light bulb that I had. My mentor at the time had an office space that she was moving out of and so I realized that I could turn it into a co-working space for women just because I was previously working at a co-working space so I knew the benefits and how it works and the logistics. There wasn't a space for all women, so I opened it and it was such a whirlwind of excitement and just really yeah, it was really, very exciting. It allowed me to see what I am capable of doing in a very public way. Melissa Alam: The community, the memberships were pretty low. I mean that's one of the reasons why I didn't continue it. But we had such great events. We would host workshops on personal and professional development and the workshops were co-ed and so we'd have a lot of guys come in. We had a lot of guest teachers and it was just such a great low key, casual type of learning. Which is definitely my style. The Fearless Conference was actually under The Hive's brand so it was just such a great experience. And I don't think it was a bad idea at all, I just think the city needs some time for it to kind of grow a little more and co-working spaces are so hard to maintain, just the overhead costs. I mean we've had a few co-working spaces close this past year as well. Melissa Alam: So it's definitely an industry that's still trying to find it's way. Especially if your like me who was bootstrapping the whole thing, but the concept of it's great. I mean there's so much community behind co-working spaces verses working alone in a coffee shop. So I still stand by it but The Hive was definitely my first baby and I learned from that as well is that I think I know I need a partner going into the next business. I was doing everything from sales to marketing to designing the flyers for our events, to promoting the events, to cleaning the bathroom when I can. To you know, everything. And I wasn't able to accomplish some of the goals I had originally created for the space because I was just running around. So definitely to have a partner and kind of delegate more, was a good lesson. Joe: Yeah, so in terms of full disclosure our agency actually has a couple of co-working spaces as clients and I hear this often from co-working leaders. That you often start a space with a lot of ambition about pulling together this community and it does come down to things like, is there toilet paper? Has the copier been refilled today? What would you advise other co-working spaces to start doing more of, or start doing differently based on what you learned from your experience? Melissa Alam: I would say, I mean there were days where something like that would happen and I would like look around and be like, "Oh wait, I am the boss." Like I would always, you are so used to like complaining to the higher ups or something, I'm like, "Oh wait, I need to deal with this." My advice would probably be give the ... I mean you first need a community, a dedicated community for sure before you open a co-working space. Because a community is what really matters but I would say to give some equity to the community itself. And that doesn't mean necessarily to give a stake in your company but maybe create memberships where the members are more responsible. Like they have a key, there's a cleaning or chore schedule where you split up duties. And that way like they feel more involved and that it's their office space and they're not just like they're, they're not just floating in and working and leaving but they also have a stake in the space as well for it's success. So that's probably my best advice and something I might redo if I had the opportunity. Joe: Thinking about the membership that you had. One thing I heard you say was a challenge around revenue. Was it a situation where the members did not feel like they had the ability to pay more for it? Or tell me a little bit about where you netted out with the pricing. Would you of continued it, if you felt like you could have earned more money from that? Melissa Alam: Well, it was also the space itself. We had 900 square feet and so for me to even create for instance like a profitable event. I'd have to host is somewhere else that could host. Like our space could only host like maybe 20 people max, so there was such a limit to the space itself, but I wouldn't be able to grow in that space without it being to cramped or people getting uncomfortable. So it was just a logistic move for me to not renew the lease for this one little space. Melissa Alam: But in terms of the memberships, I mean a lot of times people would sign up and not even use their full membership. I think the notion of co-working, I mean I never really, I think I had I think one full-time dedicated member. So I think people a lot of times thought the idea was great but they weren't able to fully utilize it. So I think that the culture around that would probably need to change a little bit more. Melissa Alam: And then also a lot of the female entrepreneurs that we have in the city are also moms, and so they were looking for daycare space. Or a lot of the female entrepreneurs that were interested wanted a private office space where they could take phone calls, but I didn't have any private office spaces. So there was a lot of things that I wasn't fully providing, that could have made the idea work, but again it was my first kind of public business and definitely I wouldn't change anything. Well, maybe I would but I am just going to say that I wouldn't change anything for the world. Just because it was a great experience and I learned so much. I mean I've been learning a lot from it as well. Joe: Well, so I think that leads me into my next question which is, I often ... When I have conversations with female entrepreneurs on the show it almost nets out as a 50-50 split. I hear from some folks that tell me that they don't necessarily want to be considered a woman in technology or a woman in their field. And then the other half of folks I talk to say we absolutely have to embrace that because it's what makes us special. So tell me what you think some of the challenges are, and what you try to solve for with members of your community. What do female entrepreneurs need to thrive, especially in a city like Philadelphia? Melissa Alam: I think the biggest thing would be community. It's being a lot of them don't know that there is other women going through the same exact things. And that's what The Hive and events I host, have been showing people is that we had an event called: The Boss Lady Burnout and how to avoid burning out as a female entrepreneur. And a lot of the topics that we went through, people just like, their eyes were just shining just because they realized like I'm going through the same thing that this other woman next to me is talking about and they had no idea. Melissa Alam: So I think community is what's really lacking is that they we're all you know going through our day to day. And we you know, hang out and talk to the same group of people and friends on a daily basis but we don't take the time to discuss things or work things out with people in the same career, because we are so independent and we are all kind of in our little bubbles of work. So I think if we had more support groups for female entrepreneurs or just awareness of how to deal and manage with issues that we might be facing on a whole we'd be so much further as a unit. Joe: Where do you feel like some of that friction comes from? Is it a perception of competition or is it just overwhelmed from all the other things that are going on? Melissa Alam: It might be a level of competition but I also think that consistency is key. I mean I am trying to be more consistent with my businesses in terms of having more consistent events so that people can rely on them. But I think there is just a lack of consistency with groups and networking groups and stuff that allow people to filter off or not stay connected with one another. And a lot of times people assume that the other party wants something from them. So I think people have their guards up when they go to these networking events. Its like, "Oh they are just going to use me for my network, or they are going to use me for my skills and not pay me." Or something, I mean, I think the creative community in Philadelphia can definitely use an update and some rejuvenation. I really admire the creative community in Toronto and LA and New York. Just because I feel like there's so much energy when it comes to those cities. And a lot of collaboration and I think also collaboration is key. I think if more people collaborated on ideas and events and projects then the city would become that much closer. And collaboration between gender and race and neighborhoods. Just like complete ... Like just completely collaborating with someone in a different scope of Philadelphia would be amazing to see. Joe: So thinking about all that, tell me the dream you have for your business. Where do you think you'll be in 10 years? Melissa Alam: Ah man, in 10 years I'm hoping to live on some magical island and have other people running my business and I just have to kind of sign papers here and there. And say it took you know, a yes or a no, here and there but I would love to create Femme & Fortune to be a full service digital media company. So providing women with resources, articles, having a job bank. Fund campaigns, relevant campaigns for women. A video, a TV show. I want to start a podcast as well. I'm also working on my first book right now. That I wanted to create a coffee table book so I would love to have more books published in 10 years. And what else? I mean my, I have ideas like every day so this might all change but for now that's the vision I see for my business and career. Just keep growing what I have now and make it just self sufficient, more self sufficient. Joe: Great well I know that you and I both have meetings to get to in the next couple of minutes but is there anything else that you want to add before we wrap this up for this episode? Melissa Alam: No just stay tuned for the Fearless Conference this October 2016. It will be most likely in Old City, in Philadelphia. You can find me at RingTheAlam, is my social media so I am pretty active everywhere but stay in touch there. Joe: Melissa Alam, thanks so much for joining us on The Build. Melissa Alam: Thanks so much Joe! Joe: The Build is a production of 2820 radio in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Our producer is Lori Taylor. Our associate producer is Katie Cohan Zahniser. Our talent coordinators are Katrina Smith and Gizem Yali. And our post production team is led by Evan Wilder at FlowlyAudio in Detroit. My name is Joe Taylor Jr. Thanks for listening to The Build. Announcer: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build. We hope you'll share this series with your friends and provide us with feedback on the iTunes store.