When Della Smith started Vancouver-based communications consulting firm Quay Strategies Inc. with her friend Patsy Worrall in 1995, she took a decidedly unusual approach: Out went the 24/7 corporate culture that she had been used to as president of PJS Communications, a division of Palmer Jarvis (now DDB Canada). Instead, she got a life and more time for family, and her firm thrived despite its out-by-5 o'clock mindset. Quay also has what Smith calls a strict "no-asshole policy": She won't take on a client she doesn't like. The strategy has served Smith well for 15 years.
But in June, the long-time business partners announced that the six-employee company would close its doors at the end of August. It was time, they said, to "follow their hearts."
Why leave now?
It was time. We've always promised ourselves we'd leave on a high. Our lease was up at the end of August. We both are having milestone years as well. Patsy turns 50 this year, I turn 55.
Why are you closing the business rather than selling it?
We looked at that and certainly talked to some people. When you sell in our business, you typically do an earn-out. That's when a larger company comes and buys you, but they want the principals to stay for a year or two. And for us, that kind of timing didn't work. I'm itching to move on. I also don't think I could have a boss again.
So what was it like to start your own company?
Fabulous. We never looked back. I think we sort of proved to ourselves that you could do it the way we did it and make money and have a good, successful business.
What's next for you?
I'm going to write a book about communications. I'm going to take all the corporate lessons - what I coach and do with my clients - and I'm going to repackage it for the individual.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own company?
Do what you love, because it's a big commitment. Ethics and integrity were critical to us. It meant that we had our own parameters about what we would do and how we would do it. The other big thing is keeping current. I see so many organizations that are not keeping up with what is going on. And you get left behind.
Can you give an example where you put ethics and integrity first?
There was one where it was a new business opportunity, a very large organization, but when I went to meet with the individual I found him just extremely offensive. He talked about litigation at length - it was actually part of his business strategy. I just flatly turned down the business right there. And he also treated people in his company very poorly when I was in the meeting - so, for that reason alone, I wouldn't work with him. And he was quite shocked because he had a lot of money to spread around.
You do a lot of advising about online and social media strategies. Do companies still fear that world?
Yes. Absolutely. My firm belief, though, is that social media is just another tool. You have to have an overall communications strategy and philosophy, and this is just one element of it. People start to get so hung up on it, and they want to stop doing everything else. Or they jump on the latest trend - you've probably heard that every CEO should have a blog. Not true. I have people coming to me saying they want a social media strategy and, at the end of the day, when they really look at it, they shouldn't be in the arena at all.
For some organizations, they can't keep up with it. Everyone thinks it's free, and it's not. It's a time commitment and it's a resource commitment to do it right. Or they're not prepared to really take the heat. Like if you want to do a blog but you don't want to get any feedback.
Do you think you'll set up another company in the future?
I hope not. I want to write, publish books and do workshops. And that's been my goal for a long time - it's what I really want to do.