Melissa Roberts is the President of Free State Strategy Group, an integral public affairs firm the helps clients develop and execute grassroots advocacy strategies to build engaged and receptive communities both online and offline. Melissa is a proud Kansas City startup community “feeder,” serving on the Board of the Kansas City Startup Foundation/Kansas City Startup Village, working with the Enterprise Center in Johnson County and the Mid-America Angels investment network, and advising a handful of local startups in strategic communications and digital marketing efforts. Follow her @msmeliss2024.
What is the first thing you did to turn your current business from an idea into a reality?
I did not ever imagine that I would become an entrepreneur, so when the opportunity came to start a business, I was woefully unprepared. The first step I took was to turn to my mentors and those I knew I could ask many (sometimes stupid) questions of. Having a rich personal support system in place, both emotionally and in terms of practical business advice, has helped me grow my business more quickly than I ever anticipated.
What is the scariest part of being a young entrepreneur and how can others overcome this fear?
I think everyone deals with impostor syndrome, the downside of the “fake it until you make it mentality,” in the entrepreneurial world to a certain degree. The thing that always gave me confidence that my business would be successful, even when I was in denial about the box full of receipts in my closet, was that I know my industry inside and out. In the early days, the administrative side of my business was not always immaculate, but my top priority has always been the counsel and value I deliver to my clients. They can recognize that passion for client services. So even though I’ve faked my way through some parts of starting a business, my confidence in my industry expertise has gotten me through.
Were you ever told not to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams? Who told you that, what did they say and why did you ignore them?
When I decided to start my own business, a lot of people dismissed me. In the agency world, there’s a whole different understanding of risk — it’s something you mitigate for clients, not something you pursue. But again, I knew I could compete in my area of expertise with the best, and that I had to try to build something myself.
What is the No. 1 thing you wish you’d known starting out and how did you learn it?
Find a good accountant, quickly. The stress I felt trying to do my first year of taxes on my own took my eye off the ball in a big way. Now, having surrounded myself with a team of experts (a good accountant, a good attorney, etc.), I can concentrate on the things I do best.
What do you recommend all new founders do for their business — or their personal lives — that will help them the most?
If you don’t know already, figure out what you’re uniquely good at as quickly as possible. Then find ways to outsource the things you’re not. It’s a bit of a risk, because it requires more overhead in the early days of a business. But it’s allowed me to spend my time and talent on what I do well and ultimately, grow my business.
How do you end each day and why?
I end each day relaxing and cooking dinner with my boyfriend. I can’t honestly say I turn my phone off, but I try to keep work-related time to a minimum at the end of the day. Work-life balance in the entrepreneurial world is elusive; in the client-services world, perhaps even more so. But knowing that spending my evenings working is an exception rather than the rule helps. In this respect, it’s the effort that often counts most.
What is your best PR/marketing tip for business just starting up?
Make sure you’re selling something people want to buy and never stop learning more about what they want and need. That can be a hard principle to adopt in the client-services world, because you’re not selling “something” per se. But whether you’re building a service business or a product or an app, understanding your customer, understanding their pain points and communicating how you can help alleviate that pain is essential.
What is your ultimate goal? What will you do if/when you get there?
My ultimate goal doesn’t have an end point. I want to work toward making sure that startups, which I firmly believe are going to drive our economy for years to come, have the authentic political voice and impact that they deserve. Too often, people try to speak on behalf of innovators or adopt that mantle and because we’re so focused on our own projects, we let that happen. But my goal for our community is to think critically about the rules and regulations that govern our businesses and move beyond slogans to weigh in with a nuanced and authentic voice.
BusinessCollective, launched in partnership with Citi, is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.