Book Excerpt: 'Spark & Hustle: Launch and Grow Your Small Business Now' by Tory Johnson

In her new book, Tory Johnson breaks down strategies for small business success.

By'GMA' Digital Unit via logo
May 28, 2012, 9:04 PM

May 29, 2012 — -- You've seen Tory Johnson on "Good Morning America," with stories about workplace issues and her popular Steals and Deals segments that bring you big discounts on great items every week.

In her new book, "Spark & Hustle: Launch and Grow Your Small Business Now," Johnson breaks down exactly what people need to do in order to start their own small businesses and make them successful.

Below is an excerpt from "Spark & Hustle."


We both know why you're here. You were downsized. Your hours were cut. Your employer went bust. You need to make more money to get by. You've graduated from college without a job and your career path isn't clear. You want to use your own smarts and creativity to take control of your working life.

You are like (and perhaps among) the thousands of people I meet at my Spark & Hustle conferences for current and aspiring entrepreneurs. While the ages span generations, and backgrounds are diverse at these events, one thing is clear: people are eager to make a change. Twentysomethings who abandoned job searches in favor of becoming their own boss. New moms who shudder at the thought of being beholden to a boss instead of their baby. Seasoned professionals who want to take the knowledge they gained on someone else's payroll to build their own venture. Employees who saw colleagues being fired and are determined to create a side business of their own. Retirees who dipped into savings to stay afloat and now must replace that income in their golden years.

We've all learned hard lessons in this new economy. The days of spending an entire career at one company, of a guaranteed pay- check with a pension to match are long gone. Job security, no matter how good you are at what you do, no longer exists. Many of us are still recovering from the downturn and anxious that storm clouds could gather again.

That's the end of the negativity you'll find in this book: being a naysayer won't get you far. Brighter days are most definitely ahead.

If the recession hit you hard or you were awakened by a reality check as peers were affected by a rough economy, it's time to strike back. That's the driving theme behind Diane Sawyer's on- going "Made in America" series on ABC's World News, which has challenged ordinary people to renew their pride in all things American, to help keep jobs right here at home and revive our economy. I'm convinced that one of the best ways to do that is the old-fashioned American way: start your own business and pro- duce goods and services right here in the USA.

We're entering a small business revival. The number of jobs may be stagnant, but the opportunities to launch a small business are not. In fact, small businesses drive most of the growth in our economy. By starting one, you can be part of the country's economic solution and, more importantly, your own.

Small business is booming because the barriers to starting one have never been lower. It's not a complicated or mysterious process to get going. Your computer can be your research and marketing department, even your storefront. Technology enables your corporate headquarters to be your kitchen table or corner coffee shop. A high-speed Web connection can be your road to success.

In July 2010, I held my first Spark & Hustle conference—spark for the ideas, passion and expertise that so many women have, hustle for what it takes to turn that into cash. For three scorching summer days in Atlanta, two hundred smart, savvy women shared their vision and dreams, while soaking up all kinds of tips and tactics from our roster of handpicked speakers—women who had started with nothing but guts and created successful businesses. They built their destinies brick by brick and shared their hard-won wisdom with others who wanted to do the same.The feedback from the Atlanta event was so strong that I decided to take Spark & Hustle on the road. I wanted other women with established or fledgling businesses to learn from people who'd been there and done that—sometimes with the gray hairs to prove it.

I've spent the last year meeting thousands of talented current and would-be entrepreneurs at Spark & Hustle events in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Tulsa.

What I learned from these women made writing this book possible and affirmed what I know to be true: desire and hustle trump education, experience and economics.

Forget the MBA. If you have one, great. But you don't need it; I'm a college dropout who launched a very successful business with very little money and no special connections. The women I work with are hungry to make things happen, but none of them have sugar daddies and I can't recall a single one saying she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. They know it's all about the hustle: the decisions they make and the actions they take each and every day.

Now it's your turn to hustle. I hope you're at least a tad crazy. It helps in this line of work.

At my Philadelphia Spark & Hustle event, maternity retail pioneer Liz Lange said, "Those of us who succeed do so because we're nuts." She's my kind of girl—making me feel normal (whatever that is) for being somewhat insane. This was a sentiment echoed on our stage by many of the most successful women today. Stella & Dot cofounder Jessica Herrin said it, too: "You have to be a little bit (or a lot) crazy to make it as a small business owner."

If you're OK with that—in fact, ready to embrace it—then let's make your business dream a reality. Only you can define what success looks like for you, but on these pages you'll learn what I did on my journey and what I've shared with others at my Spark & Hustle events: the nuts and bolts of starting and growing a profitable small business.

If there is a common trait among the women I meet who make it, it's this: they believe in themselves and what they are doing. That's the most potent fuel for an entrepreneur. Follow their lead and believe unflinchingly in yourself. And know that I'm rooting for your small business success.


My entrepreneurial path began in 1990. An exciting summer internship, which ended with an entry-level job offer at ABC News, prompted me to quit college in favor of moving to New York City. From there I landed a position as a publicist at NBC News, promoting the network's superstars—Jane Pauley, Maria Shriver, the late Tim Russert, investigative ace Brian Ross, among others—and the programs they anchored. I loved the pace of breaking news, the thrill of working with the best in the business and the paycheck that afforded me, then a twenty-one-year-old kid, a decent lifestyle.

I was a solid performer—great at pitching and securing media coverage for NBC in the biggest newspapers, magazines and TV programs in the country. I loved what I did and where I did it— iconic 30 Rock—and I couldn't envision working anywhere else. NBC was home.

Then it all came apart. The newly appointed head of NBC News called me into his office. Sitting back in his big leather chair, hands clasped behind his balding head, he matter-of-factly explained that anytime someone takes over, change is inevitable. New protocols, new processes, new people…

It took me a few moments to catch on. I stammered, "Are you ?ring me?" His response was cold, bloodless: "You have thirty minutes to leave the building."I wasn't ready to be fired without a fight. As a Florida state debate champ in high school, I had always been quick on my feet. I began rattling off my accomplishments, as well as a list of colleagues internally and externally who would vouch for me.His response was a dull, blank stare.

I regrouped and suggested that he let me prove myself. "Give me three things to accomplish in three weeks, three months— whatever time frame you want."

He glanced at his watch.

It became clear there was no way I was going to change his mind. As I got up to walk out of his office, struggling not to lose it, he offered a parting thought.

"Tory, it's a big world out there, and I suggest you go explore it."I didn't know it at the time, but that was some of the best advice I ever got professionally and personally. Yet in the moment, I was very tempted to tell him where he could take his exploration.

I spent months hiding in my apartment, shades closed. I hunkered down with Häagen-Dazs and daytime TV, filling my days and nights with self-doubt and panic. Venturing outside and meeting old friends or new people meant explaining my status. I knew how I had cringed when people said, "I'm in transition," or "I'm looking for my next opportunity." Losers. I didn't want any- one to think about me that way. My pity party turned into a misery marathon, financed by my severance pay, unemployment benefits and the 401(k) I stupidly cashed out because I figured it was easier than finding another job.

Between rent, ordering takeout and retail-clothing therapy, my cash vanished quickly—and I faced two choices: return home to Miami Beach, or snap out of it and find another job. Nothing wrong with Florida, but I wasn't going back. So I got out of my pajamas, picked up the phone, and eventually landed in corporate communications at Nickelodeon, the kids' cable network. I worked with fun people in a beautiful skyscraper overlooking Times Square. I had a nice office with a view, a six-figure salary, and I was all of twenty-three.

But that panicky feeling stuck with me—the one that comes from having been canned without warning.

I was still angry and hurt. I resented the notion that, despite my hard work, an arrogant man in a suit could take away my paycheck and, in the process, rob me of my dignity and self-worth. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake it.

At the time, I thought my malaise stemmed from working for faceless corporations. So after three years at Nick, I decided to try something new: I accepted a marketing and public relations job for a start-up lifestyle magazine for twentysomethings.We were a young, brash, enthusiastic staff on a mission: pro- duce a glossy book that would change the world. This was a scrappy, entrepreneurial environment—no big expense accounts or fancy offices. None of that mattered because I was energized by the opportunity to be creative and resourceful in my new gig.

I did well there, but at some point my post-traumatic-pink-slip syndrome resurfaced. It wasn't something I thought about every day, yet the scary "what if?" always loomed. What if the magazine folded? What if financing dried up? What if my position was eliminated? If you've ever had the rug pulled out from under you, "what if?" takes on a whole new dimension. It can consume you.

I shared my "what if" worries with friends and family. The advice was always the same: "Just keep doing a good job." "Make sure the boss knows how hard you're working." "Keep your head down and give it your best." I knew they meant well, and they weren't wrong to say or think any of those things, but the conversation was very different in my head. Then another friend chimed in with advice that hit a nerve. She said, "Stop worrying about what you can't control."

That's the one that got me, which I'll never forget. I didn't want to have to wonder if someone else would continue to find me a valuable asset to the company. I didn't want to worry about protecting the status quo and building something, only to be suddenly canned again. I didn't want to have the threat of another pink slip hanging over me. It was bad enough when I was younger. But now I was a wife and mom: the stakes were much higher. The idea that I couldn't control whether or not my paycheck was steady weighed heavily.

It became obvious that I was never going to shake this pink- slip scar while I was on someone else's payroll. I wanted to build something on my own, bet on myself and see what I could do with that same hustle I used every day to make someone else's company thrive.

If I made the leap from the employment track to an entrepreneurial path, maybe that lingering layoff worry would begin to heal. If I went out on my own, the "what if?" would turn into "what's next?" Everything would be up to me. That concept is terrifying for many people, but it was exhilarating to me.

So I quit the magazine, which was the most freeing personal move I could have made. Ask anyone who has quit corporate America to go out on her own, and many will say the same thing. I didn't quit to make more money or pursue a specific passion. My rationale for what so many people called a risky and irresponsible move was much deeper. I never, ever wanted my family to suffer as I had because of the impulse of a corporate exec. I wanted to provide my family with security that no one could take away. By founding and creating Women For Hire, a company that would produce career expos—pairing leading employers with professional women—we'd bank on me. I told myself I couldn't go for it until I knew exactly what kind of business I'd create. For six months before going on my own, I thought day and night about how to start something based on my interest in promoting women, which stemmed from my admiration of the network news stars I had once worked with.

I found myself hanging out with my brother David's college friends, many of whom were women. This was just before their senior year at New York University. I expected tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about finishing up and getting out on their own. Instead, I learned they were anxious about landing jobs and launching careers. These were sophisticated girls: no lack of ego in this group. They were genuinely concerned about their ability to get in front of employers to beat the competition. If they felt this way, I could only imagine what was going on among students at less competitive schools.

So I began to envision creating a venue for bright women from all colleges and universities—not just the big ones—where they would feel comfortable and confident as they met face-to-face with top recruiters. In essence, I'd give them that foot in the door.

I made lists of the companies I wanted to attract to my events. I could see women walking through our doors in perfectly polished business attire, résumés in hand. I heard the buzz of the busy ballroom as hundreds of conversations took place amid the smiling faces and the exchange of business cards. I even scouted locations and got cost estimates from my top choices.

It was then that I had a very strong sense of what the business would be. With my focus sharpened, I put together my first career expo just three months after leaving that magazine job.

When I meet aspiring small business owners today, they're usually bursting with excitement over their big ideas. Their faces light up as they tell me about their incredible product or service. They envision customers lining up to buy. They can't wait to get going.

To these people I always ask one simple question: "Why? Why do you want to do this?"

Most times, the responses fall into the same categories: earning money, pursuing a passion, being their own boss and making the world a better place. All noble goals, of course, and I happen to share them. But I think to improve your odds for success, you need deeper and more personal motives. The further you dig, the closer you are to unlocking your true motivation.

Only when you own your "why" will you know you have that commitment to be ready, willing and able to tackle all the challenges that small business ownership will throw your way. That "why" is the fuel to keep you hustling.

What's really behind your desire to launch a business? Are you determined to insulate your family from the financial blow of a future pink slip? Do you want to control your time so you're more available for others? Have you sworn you'll never work for "the man" again? Do you believe that you could have greater influence and success by going out on your own?

Insulating my family from the repercussions of a corporate decision was my initial impetus. So right before I started Women For Hire, I created a visual representation of my why. It was a heart-shaped poster with photos of my husband, Peter, and our kids. I laminated it at a copy shop. Looking at it every day was all I needed to stay on track, to focus on the big picture. Get out your photos and do the same thing when you discover your "why." Create a visual reminder and post it as your silent cheering squad to help you and focus and to fuel that fire in your belly.

From "Why" to "When"

Women ask me all the time, "When should I quit my day job and work on my business full-time?"

Some people just up and quit. Others start their businesses on the side and keep their day jobs. There are many options in between, of course, and no single path fits all. Emily Bennington spent two years working after hours on her business consulting practice, Professional Studio 365, before making the full-time leap. She was a successful marketing leader at a Top 10 accounting firm, known for generating creative ideas to help new hires thrive at a competitive company. Higher-ups praised her work, but they rarely allowed Emily to actually put her ideas into action. Instead, they hired consultants to swoop in to execute them. Time and again, she watched from the sidelines as those ideas came to life. Finally, she'd had enough. Her passion for her work was too strong to allow others to do what she craved.

But Emily also had a family. She had bills to pay and didn't feel that she could leave her job without having steady income to re- place her paycheck. So she chose to work at her business on the side. She used vacation days to give speeches and attend conferences, spent evenings writing a book and, yes, stole spare moments at her day job to post blog entries and correspond with key contacts using her personal email.

It was after Emily attended a 2011 Spark & Hustle conference in New York that she says she was inspired to make the leap and leave her full-time job earlier than she had originally planned. She learned from the other women there that it's much harder to grow a business on the side than when you throw yourself into it 24/7.Her original goal was to replace her salary, but when she hit half that per month by doing side projects, she knew it was time to leave. After months of cutting her expenses and squirreling away money in savings, a nervous but determined Emily went for it. Her must-haves included health insurance, a few regular clients, a great website and affordable day care.

Today, employers call on Emily to teach them how to recruit and retain the best entry-level talent. At human resource conferences, she shows companies how to develop programs to help new hires succeed. She gives speeches on college campuses and at women's events about how to be a rock star on the job. Emily also writes extensively and pitches herself to the media as a college-to-career expert, which has generated national attention for her work, along with clients and referrals. Emily's doing what she does best: getting paid to generate ideas and programs that inspire others.

Be an Emily. Don't wait for someone else to tell you what to do. You have to make the decision based on your financial situation, personal circumstances and ability to handle uncertainty. Financial guru Suze Orman has said you should have twelve months of operating expenses in the bank before launching a business. I love Suze, but that's not very realistic for most aspiring entrepreneurs. If I had waited until I could bank even half of that before starting Women For Hire, I would never have gotten it off the ground. I barely had a couple of months of cash when I took the plunge. My guess is that most entrepreneurs are in the same boat—I know the ones I work closely with sure are.

Figure out what you need—what's "good enough"—to take the next step. Maybe it's a certain amount of cash you want in savings. Maybe it's a minimum number of clients ready to go. Maybe it's receipt of a year-end bonus. Maybe it's just a matter of setting the date and pulling the trigger. Once you identify what it is, work toward making that happen.

Here's a quick checklist to get started:____ Savings to satisfy your sanity ____ Child care or elder care arrangements ____ Affordable health insurance ____ Personal support network ____ Other based on your personal preferences

Reality Check

There is value in dreaming big, imagining what you want your life and business to be, turning that vision into a plan and then going for it. That's exactly what I want this book to help you do. But first, a few ground rules.

Think Like an Immigrant

I live in New York, a city of immigrants. New York has always welcomed people from other countries and it's hard to imagine it any other way. Another thing I can't imagine is anything more frightening than landing alone in a foreign country, not speaking the language, having no money and not knowing anyone. Yet that's exactly what the first two babysitters we hired for Jake and Emma did when they emigrated from Russia to New York. Veronika and then Cici, who cared for my kids from two months to age twelve, arrived at different times from the Ukraine and Georgia, each with a suitcase, a few hundred dollars, no plan for where they might live and not speaking more than a few words of English.

Today, Veronika has a solid job bidding on contracts for a large construction company in Massachusetts, tapping into the engineering degree she earned back home. Cici just got her master's degree in speech therapy and has a private practice. They both speak fluent English. They're both among the hardest working women I know.

Why? Because they have a "whatever it takes" work ethic. No task was ever beneath them, no hours too long, nothing taken for granted.

Here in Manhattan, I witness that immigrant mentality routinely because I'm surrounded by newcomers. Chinese grocers whose shops never close. The same delivery guy from Ecuador who shows up at my door in the morning when the kids want bagels for breakfast and at night when they order a snack. Ditto for the newsstand guy from Bangladesh and Amanda, the Korean woman at my dry cleaners who works 6am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, fifty-two weeks a year.

You could say they work such long hours because they have to—to make ends meet—and that's probably true. But I also think many of them are driven to succeed, to triumph over whatever adversity has been thrown their way, because the alternative is too dark to imagine.

For me, returning to the corporate world represents that darkness—it's what fuels me every day to push to succeed, along with knowing that other people in my life depend on me. Perhaps my mentality is a bit stark, but most successful entrepreneurs I know have some variation of it. They work as if their lives depend on it. They genuinely do whatever it takes.

Yet I've spoken with scores of business-owners-to-be who say they want to set up shop to have more leisure time. They de- scribe making their own schedule, having plenty of free time, and a life with money, freedom and no boss. All of this is possible, of course, but don't underestimate the initial and ongoing commitment of your time and the sheer number of hours you will work to turn a profit.Being a business owner can make you more money, give you more freedom than you've ever had before, and allow you to de- sign your life according to your preferences. Travel or no travel; set up at home or in an office; work alone or as part of a team. If being an entrepreneur didn't afford my family and me the life it does, I wouldn't do it.

But I have never worked more hours than I do now. It took years of struggle and sacrifice—long hours, typically seven days a week—to make my business a big moneymaker. And it's an ongoing devil. I still work harder than I ever did at one of my "real" jobs. Once again, talk to most entrepreneurs and they'll echo this.Call me crazy, but I wake up each morning ready to tackle a new day and a new set of challenges. I'm even more thrilled that I chose this path than as I was on Day One.

Pluck vs. Luck

I learned the word pluck from my father-in-law, Jim Johnson. He used to call me "plucky," and I had to look it up because it sounded like a name for a chicken. It means "determined, daring, fearless, spirited, resolute, audacious, spunky, unflinching, gutsy." I love it. Pluck is the very definition of what it takes to be a profitable small business owner.

Women often tell me how lucky I am to own a successful small business. It's true: I have had good fortune, but it has come from hard work and determination. Luck is rare and unreliable. Pluck is the very opposite. It's about taking control and making your goal a reality. I'll take pluck over luck every time.

No one would say that Tierra Destiny Reid was lucky when Macy's eliminated her department while she was on maternity leave in 2009. Instead of looking for another job, she decided to start a business. A stylish woman on a military wife's budget, Tierra knew from experience how to stay fashionable at a discount.It took pluck to take what she knew about budget fashion and turn it into a profitable retail operation. She scoped out the right location, negotiated a favorable lease, furnished the space with used fixtures and opened a clothing store that is now Stylish Consignments, a go-to resale resource in Atlanta.

Tierra invested every penny of her $6,000 in severance and ended the year grossing $80,000 in retail sales—without incurring a dime of debt. (I'll talk more about avoiding debt in the coming chapters.)

Some people are born with pluck, but others have to learn how to take risks and see them through. You'll need pluck to deal with the adversity and opportunity that you'll encounter along the way. You may dream of catching lightning in a bottle, but never count on it. Don't expect to get lucky, either.

Mistakes Happen

I've made more mistakes than I care to count, but I rarely make the same one twice. My career expos originally ran from 10am to 6pm. I figured that by spending more than $2,000 a pop for a recruiting booth, HR reps would expect an eight-hour expo to get their money's worth. What I found, however, was that by about 3pm, the pace of arrivals among job-seekers had come to a complete stop, and the ballroom was dead for the remainder of the afternoon, which meant events ended on a downer. Not a good thing. But I worried about reducing the hours without having to reduce the cost to employers. Ultimately, I realized that cutting back hours delivered the same number of candidates, but more efficiently. The events now wrap at 2pm and my booth rates are the same.

I also wasted time and money on event booklets for attendees. My mom and I worked hours and hours at Kinko's, formatting ads from each participating employer, trying to get them all just right. Since neither of us is a graphic designer, or familiar with how to do this on a computer, it was difficult and stressful. Worse, nobody seemed to read our fancy handouts. Today, we print a short paragraph on each employer in a Word document. It works just fine.

The majority of my early mistakes are more universal to most small business owners: inefficient bookkeeping and poor hiring decisions, probably because I wasn't good at or interested in those things. My passion was (and still is) focused on women's career issues, not the nitty-gritty of running a business. I learned to get help in those areas where I knew I lacked the necessary knowledge, and I forced myself to get skilled in finances since it became essential to growing the business.

I first met Michael Alter, president of, as a client. His company is the leading online payroll services company and serves Women For Hire and more than thirty-five thousand other small businesses. I got to know Michael better because his company sponsors Spark & Hustle conferences, where he has shared with my attendees lessons on business success and failure.

"Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success," he says. In fact, SurePayroll gives out a "Best New Mistake Award" to an employee annually because Michael believes that fear of making a mistake is the same as fear of success. No risk, no reward. (There's no award at SurePayroll for making the same mistake twice.)

Michael says fear of making a mistake will halt your vision and your company's progress. "The longer you wait to try some- thing new, the longer you'll wait to learn something your competitors might already know." Learn from it, correct it quickly and move on.

To illustrate his point, Michael talks about teaching his kids to walk. All of them fell, bumped their head and got bruised. One even made a trip to the emergency room. But they survived and today Michael is proud to say all three of his kids walk perfectly.

Getting a handle on what it takes to run your business will mean you stumble from time to time. Get up, dust yourself off and find your way.

"Fear Sucks!"

As the workplace contributor on ABC's Good Morning America, I once did a story on a woman whose fear paralyzed her job search. She met with a coach who showed her a Harley-Davidson motor- cycle ad that read:

"Over the last 105 years in the saddle, we've seen wars, conflicts, depression, recession, resistance and revolution. We've watched a thousand hand-wringing pundits disappear in our rear-view mirror. But every time this country has come out stronger than before. Because chrome and asphalt put distance between you and whatever the world can throw at you. Freedom and wind outlast hard times. And the rumble of an engine drowns out all the spin on the evening news. If 105 years have proved one thing, it's that fear sucks and it doesn't last long. So screw it, let's ride."

The same is true for your business. The "chrome and asphalt [that] put distance between you and whatever the world can throw at you" are your pluck and planning. Face fear with determination and action, knowing your passion and hard work will outlast hard times. The rumble of your need to succeed will drown out naysayers and negativity.

Since that segment on GMA, I've worked with thousands of business owners who regularly bring up fear as an obstacle to business growth. They're afraid that they're investing too much in a pipe dream. They're afraid that the bills will come due before the money comes in, that they've missed their chance or will hit the market before they are ready. They're afraid of large competitors outmarketing them and smaller competitors under- pricing them, that they're not good enough to make great things happen. The list is endless.

Fear comes with the territory. For most of us—and I'm no exception—all safety nets are gone. I get it. But I refuse to let fear stop me from aggressively pursuing business opportunities. I've accepted fear as part of the deal. It does not go away, but it does not have to own you.

Listen to your fear, challenge it, use it to get started and move forward. When you fear running out of money, analyze your spending and justify all expenses. When you fear giving a pitch to prospective clients, practice it so extensively that you can look at yourself in the mirror and say: Nobody knows this better than I do. When you fear hearing no, rehearse your responses and remember: you can't win every time. Don't allow fear to paralyze you. Pay attention to the root of it and then act. Action is the enemy of fear.

Keep fear in perspective, too, says another Spark & Hustle speaker, Jess Weiner, Dove's global self-esteem ambassador, who teaches women how to harness their confidence. "Fear," she says, "is often a down payment on a debt you may not owe."

So in the words of Harley-Davidson: Screw it, let's ride.

Excerpted from Tory Johnson's SPARK & HUSTLE: Start and Grow Your Small Business Right Now. Connect with Tory at

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