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Life & Business

Life & Business: Adrienne Arieff

by Sabrina Smelko

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The start-up story for so many entrepreneurs and business owners begins with: I just started and figured it out as I went. Though starting a business can be scary, this truth is also liberating and encouraging, and certainly proved to be for Adrienne Arieff, whose business launched out of many late-night Craigslist searches, backed by pure determination. Adrienne is the Managing Director and Founder of Arieff Communications, a PR, marketing and social media firm which has been transforming lifestyle brands into household names for decades. In addition to running a successful company with offices in New York and San Francisco, she has also penned three books, runs a business mentor program for 20-somethings and teens, and is an Advisor to UniversalGiving® and Accountability Council. Though her path to self-employment wasn’t a straight one (before AC, she worked as an Editor for Vogue, in-house at Burberry and at UNICEF), she attributes the sum of all of her life’s experiences to her continued success. Today, we’re thrilled to have Adrienne share some of her background, insight and wisdom into the world of business and self-employment. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

The very first step in my entrepreneurial journey was simply making the decision to start my own business, which began with getting my first client. I searched Craigslist every day and found a “PR Spa gig”—I PR’d my heart out and that successful local campaign led to many successful global campaigns. I had no business plan or even a well-formed idea at that point. I just decided that I wanted to do it and was going to do whatever it took to make it happen. And I did.

Making the decision is such an important first step. I have had my business for 13 years – it is my baby, yet I now feel like it is grown up and becoming a new being.

I love working for myself, but having said that, I often miss having a boss that I can really rely on for senior-level feedback (though, I get that to a certain degree with my senior-level colleagues). If I ever went back to work for someone else, I would handpick a pretty special person with a great sense of humor and big brain for creative to lead me.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do? 

When I was in college I had to create a PR campaign for an new airline company (it was a similar Virgin-type brand) and I fell in love with the different components of the campaign. From establishing the creative concept to event ideation and figuring out the target audience — I was hooked! It was exciting to really feel like I was developing a brand and distributing that news.

Since then, I have been an editor for Vogue, I have written three books, I have worked in economics at UNICEF and worked as an educational coordinator for a university global exchange; I have definitely had varied interests, but always come back to communications.

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What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Focus! You can offer several services, but keeping your business focused to one area is important. We started with heavy roots in fashion and beauty (I was in-house at Burberry and worked with LUSH), but being located in San Francisco, I had to switch that focus a bit due to consumer demand. We became known for turning products into a lifestyle and it has been my sweet spot for the past 10 years – from Ted Baker to Method, Adidas and Tiny Prints. We have launched almost 40 brands in 13 years.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

In the beginning it was definitely cash flow. Be prepared to expect payment terms of anything between 30-90 days depending on the company. This was tough in the beginning. When I started out I didn’t have any savings and I hadn’t planned forward. Now, it is a bit easier with crowd-funding opportunities and female-specific venture groups, but at the end of the day, numbers do not lie. Pay attention.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Welcome detours and failures and be okay with them. You will learn from your greatest failures.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

Everyone looks at failure as such a bad thing – but it is not. Once upon a time you had nothing; no data, no clue. Then you got up and moved forward. I’ve had failures along the way and also many successes. I once tried to take on a piece of business that we were not interested in but that paid very well and in the end, we did poor quality work and the client was not happy. If you are not interested in the product, service, or brand, it just won’t work. Why fake it? I guess my point is don’t take the money and run — always!

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Read more. Seriously, what a better way to stay informed and relax your brain!

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What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Personal time. I have had to give up a lot for the sacrifice of my business. I have mixed feelings, but I have had so many moments of absolute satisfaction and glee from my work that I am generally fine with the sacrifices. As time goes on, I do a lot more to just enjoy little moments with family and friends. I don’t believe in balance, but I do believe that you cannot sacrifice it all, or you may be left with nothing.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I am most proud of the books I have written and the business I have created. I have a small team and we have worked with the most coveted brands on the planet from Adidas to Method. It has been an honor and privilege.

My biggest career moment was winning the Adidas Neo label business. Launching their teen line into America was fast, complicated, creative, and wonderful. I loved every second.

Also, we do a lot of work in sustainability and social responsibility, so working with Colorhouse Paint, Ecojot, Method, Credo (a new organic beauty chain), Makers Market, WE’VE built and several others has been wonderful. I have had the chance to create many advocacy groups for consumer brands as well as blogger programs on giving back. It is important to think about the storytelling for every brand. Without a story, a brand is flat, no matter how cool it is.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Well, this is easy for me: My book, Fairytale Success: A Guide to Entrepreneurial Magic.

Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.

Quitting something that is not right is always a good move. You feel trapped and you suffer from not doing your best work.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. The idea. Has it been done? If it has been done, has it been done well? Are you trying to disrupt a brand category or start a new one?

2. Do you have the experience to execute?

3. You cannot do it all! If your business is successful, it will grow. This means letting go of a lot. You have to consider this from day #1.

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

I love BuzzFeed and NY Times news.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious? 

Staying on top of new hires, contracts, mentoring, growth adjustments, and financials…I probably need to hire a COO at this stage!

 

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Comments

  • Sometimes Design Sponge disappoints me, yet I keep coming back for more. This is one of those times. I would love to hear more about entrepreneurs that literally had to make their own way out of NO WAY. Quoting you, “before AC, she worked as an Editor for Vogue, in-house at Burberry and at UNICEF.” Really. Why wouldn’t she be able to start a business and be hella successful? How about highlighting women that didn’t have connections to well-known brands or networks? I also must say it is interesting how white women hire themselves. If the above picture accurately reflects your staff you need some diversity!

    • Tamara

      There are a number of offensive statements in your comment, but I’m going to address what I hope is the core of your issue: you’d like to hear from women who are starting from zero (no job experience prior to their business). Almost all people bring some sort of job experience or connections into what they do- or make the most of the ones they have.

      If that is your concern, I highly suggest following our “Veterans and Startups” column to hear from people who are brand new to their business.

      If you’d like to hear from non-white business owners, here are a few to choose from from just the last few months: Ayumi, Cindy, Toni, Karen, Cy, Jonna, Celia and Nana (there are plenty more).

      If you’d like to hear from people without “high profile” brand pasts: Victoria, Erin, Wishbone, Breadhive, Isabelle, Nightwood, Katie.

      Please consider your tone and words when commenting here. Making inaccurate assumptions about people and implications about their race are not welcome.

      I’d like to add that I find it incredibly saddening that you seem to assume that Adrienne was somehow handed her previous positions. She worked hard to get to those places so yes, that experience does in handy when starting to build a brand. But not because she didn’t earn it. All of the people we profile here work hard, do their best to get where they are. Just because someone worked at a high-profile job doesn’t mean they didn’t put in a high amount of work and effort to get there.

      Grace

  • Dear Tamara: I appreciate your candor. Yes, I had some cool jobs along the way prior to starting my own business but I sure spent a lot of hard work interviewing, crying from several disappointments and rejections. I think it took me 2 years just to get my job interview at burberry. I initially started my business because I was laid off from a job and collected unemployment prior to landing my first client. Isnt it nice when things turn around and we can enjoy the successes and roll with the failures a bit better?

    Life can be rough along the way but lets all support one another as women and colleagues regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, marital status, or disability. I have had all sorts of wonderful diverse people work for me. All had their own wonderful ingredients for success!

    • Adrienne,
      I remember standing with you in line for a taxi in cold Salt Lake City in 2013. You were kind, interesting and engaging in just those few minutes we spoke. Congratulations on your successes and hard work and maybe we’ll bump into each other again sometime.

  • Congratulations to her for starting an incredibly successful business. And it’s so true about entrepreneurs having to sacrifice relationships in the short term to achieve their dreams. After reading your book – I realize starting at a young age is imperative to really launching your career, goals and dreams!

  • Thanks for this inspiring & informative interview! I am impressed with the way Adrienne Arieff embraces her experiences and motivates women to pursue their passions and achieve success. It’s clear she’s very motivated but she also has an honest & realistic approach- it’s quite refreshing!

  • An interesting article and responses. I started out in much the same way and particularly agree with the points about cash flow and terms of business. I learnt to get tough – asking for three months payment in advance before taking on a client (if you work for nothing and they default, you have nothing, no goods to recover).

    My terms of business were set out on a flip-chart (later a PC) stating the terms and fee levels – no embarrassed silence or picking a figure out of the air when it came to discussing price, it was there in black and white.

    Finally I got weary/wary of start-ups who wanted to pay little or nothing but ‘grow with them’….I had to remember I was a professional consultant, working for a fee, not an investor in someone else’s speculative venture. Sounds harsh but it saved my life!

  • It seems that Tamara took a little snapshot of Adrienne’s life and completely blew it out of proportion. If anything it reflects poorly on her and she seems upset about something in her own life. Getting a job at Vogue, UNICEFF and Burberry is no feast. And as a smart business woman she should leverage that. Good for Adrienne for been able to accomplish what she did.

    What about the mentor ship program that Adrienne started and being an advisor for Universal Giving? It looks to me like she is cares very much about the future of young girls.

    She is a great example for all women and we should be inspired by her.

  • Thank you for this lovely look into her life and business and perspective.
    Adrienne is an amazing woman. An inspiration to all who meet her – on every level! As a entrepreneur, a mother, a female role model and as a lovely human being.
    I admire her drive and determination. She has mentored so many woman and inspires me daily. I feel blessed to know her, to be counseled by her, and to read her insight here is further testament to the positive influence fellow woman business owners can have on each other!

  • Hi Adrienne,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I love it. It is so inspirational. And it also get me curious and I went to see your website. I must say:”Wow! Your guys get it. ;)” Your guys really understand marketing and branding well.

    The words are perfect. And the images are simple, but they are right. Above of all your message about branding just touch my heart. That is why I want to learn to do that too. I am going to buy your book.

    Love Yuky

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