When most people start a business, they plan on working in that business for more than one to five years.
However that’s the average lifespan for most small businesses in the United States. Why?
Because starting a business and being able to GROW a successful business are two different things.
Everyday people come to this country looking for new opportunities and as the clique says “with a lot of hard work and determination, you too can live the American Dream.” But what exactly do they mean by “hard work and determination.”
We recently sat down with Valerie Bihet, owner of destination management and luxury event planning firm VIBE Agency, to find out exactly how a French immigrant managed to just that and has continued a more than 10 percent growth in her business year-over-year for 14 years.
The Road to Entrepreneurship Is Paved With Doubters
As we speak to many entrepreneurs, they often reference a lightbulb moment, that perfect sign from the universe that said “Ok, NOW is the right time to take the leap.” Valerie’s story is a little different though.
Originally from Paris, Bihet got her start in events working as the Public Relation and Special Events Manager at Disneyland Paris and Public Relation Director at Club Med Paris. While at Club Med, the opportunity to transfer to the Miami office presented itself in 2000.
“To be honest, I didn’t have the American Dream,” said Bihet. “I actually had a disagreement with a friend when the position became available and he challenged me asking ‘Are you sure you’re going to be able to do it?’ which made me all the more determined to prove I could.”
She called her manager at the time and accepted the position of Communication, Public Relation and Partnership Director.
During her four years in that role, she produced events and managed large production teams for the brand’s high profile events as well as being responsible for all marketing and press events.
In fact, Bihet did so well in her role that Club Med asked her to move back to France to run the Paris office’s events, but she wasn’t ready to leave the U.S. yet and the two parted ways.
It was then that a friend asked her to help plan his 35th birthday party and the seeds of entrepreneurship were planted.
“It turned out all of the guests worked for luxury brands like Chanel and Guerlain,” said Bihet. “One of them asked me to lunch for my opinion on one of their upcoming event, and it turned out that person was from LVMH. I gave my ideas and they hired me.”
And so The Vibe Agency was created, and the challenges started to roll in.
The most obvious of obstacles was the language barrier. Valerie’s European sensibility and worldly perspective, along with a hefty dose of nine years of experience at this point, helped solidify that first luxury events, but working 24/7 in her non-native language needed to get easier.
“At first I slept with the TV on and listened to the radio all the time to improve my English,” she explained. “I was very humble with my French accent and always tried to work on my English so thankful people were very patient with me.”
With communication under her belt, Valerie now needed to learn “the American ways.” She noted that Americans approach events very differently than the French with her clients in the U.S. often wanting to grasp the big picture of the plan for their event immediately and then moving onto other projects while she does what she was hired to do. In Europe, her clients get more into the details right away and take a slower approach to decision making.
Bihet soon found success by blending these two approaches to appeal to both sensibilities and double her potential client base. This came in handy when the recession of 2008 hit and the event business came to a screeching halt.
“When the financial crisis hit the U.S. I went to Europe to look for new clients,” said Bihet. “In fact, anytime the Euro was strong compared to the dollar I would take a trip back to encourage my clients there to come to the U.S.”
This tactic paid off and paved the way for VIBE to become specialized in multiple destination cities around the U.S. including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Las Vegas, in addition to her adopted home of Miami.
Building A Team
When she first began the business, she laid out a five-year plan, a something she recommends all entrepreneurs do in the beginning, and set a goal of 10 percent growth year-over-year.
That deadline soon approached as the requests for proposals increased and Bihet found herself working longer hours but wanted to do so more effectively.
“Before hiring, you have to get organized and see where your added value is and where you can delegate others to free up your time for that element,” she explained.
Beginning as a solo entrepreneur can make it hard for many people to let go of the reins and delegate to another team member. After all, you’ve been doing all the work yourself and no one will do it just like you right?
While that may be true, if you want to grow your business, and revenue, you need to grow your team of support. Bihet advises you first begin your search with looking for the right chemistry with someone via referrals from your personal network.
“You need to know you can work with this person and you can trust them to get the job to your level of expertise,” said Bihet. “What better way than to start with someone who’s already been referred to you by a friend who knows you and your personality?”
Once the chemistry seems right, it’s trial by fire. Well, not literally but Bihet’s most effective form of both interviewing and training comes on-site at events.
“Today many people put an emphasis on improving their public speaking and get trained about events in school and university, but there can be a very big gap between what they learn, or say they can do, and the reality of what you get on-site,” she explained.
If they can keep up with her and learn quickly while working an event, then she’s found someone who’ll live up to the reputation she’s built with her own name for VIBE and that’s when employee retention becomes ever more important.
Each VIBE employee is setup on an incentive plan during their annual review to further encourage each to build the brand alongside Valerie.
“It’s like paddling a boat: the more rowers you have going in the same direction, the faster you will get to your destination,” she explained.
Turning Growth Into Longevity
Creating a successful business though isn’t just about trying to get new clients for Bihet, but rather the quality of the service you give to the current ones that makes them want to continue working with you year after year.
To create that type of loyalty, she advises the following:
- Be out. While formal networking events are not Bihet’s preference for referrals, she still stressed the importance of networking among your friends and their friend, and their friends still. “I built my business on so much word of mouth and referrals. Even if I was just going out for a drink with a friend, I always talked to other people and said hello.”
- Always keep learning. “No matter how long you’re in business, you still need to keep learning. Things are always changing and you need to keep on top of what your clients are going to want before they ask for it.
- Work with your employees. “A team is at least two people at VIBE. No one works on an event alone, even though we have multiple teams working on multiple events at a time. To grow, you need to build the best team around you, train them, trust them, delegate, and build the business together.”
- Know the numbers. “In French we say, ‘Ne vit pas au dessus de tes moyens,’ which means ‘Don’t spend more than you have,’ and this couldn’t be more true as you start a business or try to get it through the rougher times. Always know how much you’re spending and where it’s going then see where you can be leaner if the economy starts to affect what you do.”
In its infancy, VIBE produced 10 events per year. Fast forward 14 years and seven new employees, VIBE now produces more than 100 events each year in 15 major cities around the world.
Note: This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Inspirational Women Magazine, published by The Global Society of Empowered Women