From the August 2000 issue of Startups

From the time she was a young girl, Dionna Smith-Bratton knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. And when she discovered her love of marketing and brand awareness while a student at Tulane University, she knew which direction her career would go. But it was her first stint out of college that led her to meld her two loves.

After graduating, Smith-Bratton, 24, landed a corporate job as a marketing and promotions director at an urban radio station in Columbia, South Carolina. While there, she noticed the commercials being played weren't aimed at the station's predominantly African-American listeners. Taking her marketing skills to another level, she started her own business, Diversified Marketing & Public Relations, an ethnic marketing and public relations firm that helps companies learn how to market their products to African-American audiences.

Smith-Bratton succeeded in proving the power of the black consumer, bringing in $45,000 in sales in 1999, her first year in business. This year, she expects to double, if not, triple that amount--a significant increase, especially when you consider she started her business with just $3,000. Today, Smith-Bratton runs her business from her home in Tampa, Florida.

HomeOfficeMag.com: Can you explain in a little more detail why you started your business and how you got the idea?

Dionna Smith-Bratton: While I was a marketing and promotions director at the radio station, I noticed that a lot of the commercials companies were sending us weren't getting the message through to our audience because they weren't listening to them. For instance, they might send in a Budweiser commercial with country music in the background. If it's on a hip-hop station, listeners are going to change the channel as soon as it comes on. I realized that a major part of marketing is getting people to hear your message.

Particularly for African Americans, we tend to spend money and buy things when they're things we can relate to. So if you're advertising on a hip hop or R&B station, and you use jazz, R&B or hip hop as background music, African Americans will listen to the commercial--as opposed to the country music example.

HomeOfficeMag.com: Can you tell me about your background? Did you always want to become an entrepreneur?

Smith-Bratton: Basically since I was very young, probably around second or third grade, I was always the person on the block who would get all the [kids] together to cut grass, and I would get a percentage of the [profits], so I was always trying to come up with something. I always wanted to do something that had to do with business, so I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

I went to college as a marketing major. That's when I really got into understanding brand awareness, and I just absolutely loved it. At the same time, I was always very conscious of the African-American community and community service. So I [decided I] wanted to find a way to tie the two together.

HomeOfficeMag.com: How are you able to present yourself as an established company while being homebased?

Smith-Bratton: I never mention that I'm homebased, unless the client already knows. I don't tell them I don't have any employees unless they ask. I never lie, and I always represent myself as professionally as possible so they feel no need to ask those questions. I'm noticing lately that companies are becoming more familiar with homebased companies and one-person enterprises, and it doesn't bother them. But some big companies [still have reservations.] For instance, GTE contacted me, and they were very surprised to find I owned a homebased company. They thought it was a big marketing and PR firm where I had employees and all that. I just really try to handle myself as professionally as possible because I want people to realize that I can do as much for them as a 25- or 30-person firm--or even a 500-person firm. [And my costs are lower,] of course, because my overhead is very minimal.

HomeOfficeMag.com: Are there any challenges that you face being homebased?

Smith-Bratton: Originally I started staying home with my three-and-a-half-year-old son because I wanted to be able to be with him. That didn't work out very well though, because during the hours that most companies are calling me, he's running around and making noise. I ended up having to send him to school on a half-day program, so I can take and return all my calls during that time. That's a major challenge.

The other challenge was trying to make my Web site look very professional. I try to make all my literature and everything else very professional so I don't have to deal with people thinking it's a small company and [thinking] I won't provide as good service as they'd receive from a big company.

HomeOfficeMag.com: How do you reach your market?

Smith-Bratton: It's great when you're actually a marketing and PR person because you learn the best ways to market to people. And that's the way you sell your business. I do tons of PR, [like] sending releases to magazines, and it's free-- you don't have to pay for PR. I also use direct-mail services and send out mailings.

I also look at Monster.com. I'll put "African American," for example, in the search engine, and you'd be [surprised by] how many companies are looking for people in their marketing department to help market to African Americans. So I'll find companies that are interested and send them literature.

I get all the PR and a lot of the marketing publications, and if a company is talking about diversity or something related to that, I'll send them something. I try to find every avenue so I can send out company literature.

Right now, I'm also getting my MBA online from the University of Phoenix. Most of the people who are getting their MBAs from the University of Phoenix are professionals who are already very established in their career or they're entrepreneurs. In every class I'm in, I tell my classmates to try to spread the word about my company.

HomeOfficeMag.com: What are your future plans for your company?

Smith-Bratton: I know I'm going to have to bite the bullet and hire employees and rent office space because I'm growing a lot, and I want to give my clients the best service I possibly can. I don't want to have a lot of clients and then be greedy and not want to rent space or spend money on stuff and not be able to serve them as well.

Right now, a lot of the marketing and PR firms are really recognizing the need to market to African Americans, and many of them are teaming up with smaller marketing and PR firms. I'm hoping to establish relationships with some of those firms. I don't want to sell my company or join forces with them, but I want to be able to consult with them so I'm able to help a number of different clients.


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