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Meet Cindy May

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cindy May.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Cindy. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I think that what it takes to be an entrepreneur is often something that’s just in a person’s DNA. I know that there are “accidental” entrepreneurs – people who have never thought about owning their own business until circumstances force them in that direction – but for me, it’s been a dream before I knew what the word meant.

And it took me a while to get here – and there were some big and small bumps along the way. A big part of my story is about not giving up on that dream. It has been worth it, regardless of the hills and valleys.

I vividly remember being ten years old and selling Girl Scout cookies. Just that tiny taste of entrepreneurship stoked my ambition. In my teens, I took talent for baton twirling and started my own business teaching others to twirl. (Baton twirling has been very good to me – I even earned a scholarship to a good university for it). At one point, I was teaching about 100 kids how to twirl and perform before audiences! We’d have to go out onto the street in front of my house to coordinate all the routines and as cars came by we’d scurry back into the front yard.

There’s a part of me that thinks I might have been able to make a go of it and work in a startup or my own business right after high school, but my parents wisely felt that going to college should be the next step. Both had pursued higher education but life intervened and they both had to quit college before they graduated. It was always their dream that I’d get my degree.

So armed with that baton-twirling scholarship, I earned my Marketing degree from Northern Arizona University. Soon I was working for a Native American artist and did all his marketing. It meant a lot of time touring with him as he traveled. I got to see the world. It was exciting, it was life-changing, it taught me a bunch, it was ultimately not what I wanted.

The biggest lesson I got from living on the road was discovering that I do not live well out of a suitcase. I’m a small town girl and it’s the environment in which I thrive. So I went back to my college town, married my college sweetheart and started knocking on doors to find my next opportunity.

One of those doors was to a local, family-owned nursery and landscape company. Interestingly, the manager thought they didn’t need any marketing. They had plants and accessories, they advertised in the paper, people bought the plants. Who needs marketing?

Fortunately, the owners disagreed. That job was a huge turning point. The nursery was where I experimented with different forms of marketing; it was a blank canvas on which I got to unleash all my ideas and creativity and training and education. I started new programs and events there, I showed how marketing could transform a nursery to a true center for the community. It’s where I learned the importance of building up local relationships.

And it was also a place where I was treated like a member of the extended family. So when I got a tap on the shoulder from the head of the local Chamber of Commerce to join that organization as the Vice President for Marketing and Membership, my nursery family was truly, sincerely happy for me.

A few years after that, there was another tap on the shoulder, this time to be part of the marketing and community outreach team for the largest utility company in my state, Arizona Public Service.

It was a whole new world. I went from being a decent-sized fish in a smallish pond to being part of a large corporate structure that employed more than 6,000 people. I was working with and presenting to elected officials and community leaders helping to make policy and deal with issues.

But the most rewarding part of that experience was the greater interaction I had with nonprofits throughout the state. At one point, I was on 12 nonprofit boards (and typically, I’d become part of their marketing or PR or fundraising committees!)

Part of my job was to help decide where the utility’s substantial community support dollars would go; what charities, organizations and causes would benefit from the hundreds of thousands of dollars available in grants and sponsorships. And that experience would play a big role when it was time to move on to my next chapter.

It’s a truism of the corporate world (particularly large corporations) that job roles and responsibilities continually evolve and change. Sometimes the changes are perfectly aligned to the employees’ ideas of where they see themselves. And sometimes they are not.

As my job began to change, I realized it was not a good fit anymore. More importantly that distant dream – the one where I was my boss and creating my own company – began to reassert itself. Was it time to leap? It was.

With the support of my wonderful husband, I hung out my own (virtual) shingle for Cindy May Marketing almost ten years ago. It’s given me the chance to take all that I’ve learned throughout the years and provide that expertise to support heart-centered organizations, particularly those that cannot afford a large marketing division. I call it “Smart Marketing for Small Nonprofits.”

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Absolutely not – although I’ve truly appreciated the journey in good times and bad. I have to admit, the first part did go pretty smoothly. I had built up a lot of good will in my community and had strong relationships with folks who actively sought me out as soon as they heard I had started a marketing business. It was a mix of nonprofit, for-profit and government work. I found myself creating one-off projects and multi-month campaigns. I enjoyed the trust and appreciation of my clients and was fulfilling that long-held dream of running my own business.

And then I experienced one of those almost inevitable detours that affect all entrepreneurs. There are so many things that can threaten to stop you or your organization in your tracks – the most obvious is when there’s an economic downturn.

In my case, it wasn’t a recession. It was a diagnosis of breast cancer. It was an experience that was scary and draining and terrible and humbling – but strangely life-affirming as well. From awesome doctors to loving friends and family, to loyal clients, to a network of support staff, I found that I didn’t have to give up my passion to help others. The work continued, the clients were pleased and my business survived. Not only that – in the two and a half years that I was getting treatments, but my business also thrived.

My sincere belief and commitment to my clients were paid back to me many times over, for which I am eternally grateful. I now am cancer-free and heading a company that is twice the size it was when I was diagnosed. But it was also a time when I figured out that despite being an independent, ambitious woman, I could NOT do it alone. I still needed to be the leader and the visionary and direct the ship – but I didn’t have to do everything. Some people could help me serve clients and grow my business.

When I first started, I had a wonderful virtual assistant and a handful of trusted contractors, but I hadn’t created a “team.” As I was going through my cancer journey – and my business was unexpectedly growing – I realized I needed a core of dedicated folks around me, people I could trust to keep the business running when I was dealing with the after effects of chemotherapy.

So I assembled a group of independent contractors around the world who I could confidently delegate work to when I needed to. From the Philippines to Scotland to the United States, these are trusted partners who helped me move my business forward during the hard times and are still by my side now that I am well.

It also made me reach out to my peers more. Honestly, for every day that you feel you hit a home run with your business, there’s going to be another day where all you can see are the challenges and problems. Having a group of peers, fellow entrepreneurs or professionals who understand your service is essential, not just so you can brainstorm and vent about the bad times, but so you can celebrate the good ones too! These are the people with whom I can have the most candid of conversations, where I can share the good, the bad and the ugly in a way that I can’t with people who rely on me for a paycheck.

And while I would never suggest having a health crisis to get some clarity about your business model, I have to say that a life-threatening illness will cause you to think about your business in a new way.

It will crystalize your reasons for doing what you do and it will make you treat time with greater respect. It forces you to acknowledge that time is a limited resource and, if you want to be happy, you need to make sure you are doing what you truly love.

I took a hard look at my list of clients and realized that the ones I had the most passion for were nonprofits. It’s where my skills and my passions coincided and where I wanted to spend my time. I consciously began to let go of clients who were not part of that world (except for my beloved family-owned nursery; I’ll always want to do marketing for them).

My next challenge is the self-imposed one. I’m transitioning my business from one that does marketing for nonprofit clients to one that is teaching nonprofits to DIY their marketing efforts. I recently launched Mission Marketing School, an online training program to help nonprofits master the skills and strategies that we would typically have implemented for them.

Tell us about your organization.
Right now our company is a mix. We have a group of clients who rely on us to manage all or significant parts of their marketing mix. This includes printed collaterals, print advertising, creating logos, refreshing brands, e-newsletters, fundraising materials, social media work, website creation and maintenance, and media releases and outreach.

Last year I launched one of my favorite parts of my business – a weekly podcast covering a wide variety of marketing issues, all geared towards small nonprofits. Recent topics have included: retention of major donors; how to do your SEO work; tweaking your donation page to get better conversions; and event marketing.

What I love about the podcast is this ability to speak directly to people and share what I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) so they pursue their mission. And I also get to introduce people to nonprofit marketers and leaders in the industry that I’m honored to have as guests on the show.

And, continuing with that theme, I’m now in the middle of transitioning my business to lean more into teaching other nonprofits how to manage their own marketing better. I want to make it so that even the smallest organization with the tiniest budget can connect with their various audiences on a deeper level. This could be their clients, donors, volunteers or the community at large. My goal is to help them raise more awareness and support so that they can get the resources they need to continue to do good in the world.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
That’s a good question. On one hand, I’m not so arrogant to believe that everything I’ve achieved is solely due to me. But I also know it’s up to me to be the driving engine and the leader to get things done.

I think faith has played the biggest role in both my business and my life. I truly believe that each and every one of us was created with a talent or gift by a power that is bigger than us. But I also realize that we have free will and we can often decide how much to make of the hand we’ve been dealt. I choose to see much of what has happened to me as being orchestrated by the God I worship, and I need that higher power for guidance.

Let me put it this way – I’m almost 50 years old and I’m writing this in my home office, which once upon a time was my oldest child’s bedroom. The same place where I rocked my daughter to sleep is where I sit and draft marketing strategies and record my podcast.

I searched the world for my definition of success, and now I’m a lot like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Do you know that line, when she finally makes it home to Kansas? “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it, to begin with.”

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