Shama Hyder graduated at the top of her class – twice – and still faced 18 job rejections after receiving her master’s. The problem? She wanted to go into social-media marketing before social media had become an integral part of every business – no-one really knew what it was yet. So she started to blog, which turned into the bestselling book The Zen Of Social Media Marketing, and clients came knocking on her door asking her to help them with their online presence.
Today, Hyder is the CEO of Marketing Zen Group, and she’s been recognised as a leader in digital marketing trends by Business Week, Forbes, Bloomberg, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. She has travelled the world as a keynote speaker, leading discussions everywhere from the White House to Cairo, and is a regular contributor to Fox Business, CBS and MSNBC.
I moved to the US from India when I was nine years old. Moving to another country is such a shock at that age. I went from being surrounded by a lot of family to being an immigrant latchkey kid responsible for my younger sister. It forced me to learn a lot about myself. Eastern education is very much about discipline and how well you can follow directions. Western education is about creativity, independence and teamwork. I got the best of both worlds. It shaped me in the way I think and made me very curious.
Initially I went to school at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. It was very prestigious. I thought I would go into the consulting world. I quickly realised that’s not really what I liked as much as I liked the communications school. I had taken a few classes and I wanted to switch majors, which was shocking to a lot of people. People work so hard to get into the business school. My counsellor made me think about it for two days before she would let me switch majors.
To earn money during college, I worked as a private teacher for students with learning disabilities. Parents would hire me to help with their home-schooling. I found my first job through Craigslist, and the kids and parents really liked me. It led to multiple clients.
I graduated in 2006 with a degree in corporate communications and went straight into the master’s programme in organisational communications at the same school. My graduate advisor was an amazing, brilliant woman who I learnt a lot from. She taught me how to hold myself in the professional environment, and she supported my thesis, which was unconventional at the time. I wanted to go to Las Vegas to attend the New Media Expo in 2007 to write about this new thing called Twitter. She convinced the department to give me my thesis stipend so I could attend. I wrote my thesis on Twitter and its users’ perception of time. I also inquired why people even bother using social media.
When I graduated my master’s, I interviewed with all the top consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Bain. None of them had digital departments like they do now. I was applying for consulting positions. I wanted to work in the digital space. I figured it would be stronger at the Fortune 500 companies – as in they would be on board – but most recruiters I spoke to didn’t know what I was talking about. I also looked at marketing and PR positions but they were all focused on traditional strategies.
I had 18 job rejections because those companies didn’t get social media. The industry didn’t really exist yet. Some of the recruiters didn’t even know what Twitter was – but I knew that it was going to change the world. I could see a small minority of people were obsessed with social media, this sense of connecting with each other, and it was growing.
It was so scary and depressing. I had graduated top of my class in undergrad and grad school but I had no job. There was no industry for what I wanted to do. So I moved back home and started my own company.
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My first step was starting a blog called After The Launch. I was writing about everything I knew, such as digital marketing, social media presence and search. I kept it broad-business-advice because I was scared of niche-ing it down to marketing and alienating potential clients but I eventually embraced focusing on marketing because it was what people kept turning to me for. I started getting clients because people would contact me and ask me to help them with their business. It was consulting work. People read the blog posts and approached me for my expertise. I charged them for it. Voilà! Business.
Initially my clients were small businesses. This was in 2008, when the recession was in full swing. Bigger companies didn’t want to try anything new but small businesses thought, ‘If this helps us get more business, we’re in’. One of my first clients was an e-commerce store that sold pet food. I offered consulting in how to set up a blog and a website, execute social media and educate them on search.
Those first clients told their friends about me, who then told more friends. Before I knew it, I got so busy I had to hire a few part-time employees – after just two months.
I never sought financing. I bootstrapped it all myself. I was trading on my expertise and there was barely any overhead. I was profitable within the first month.
The blog and my initial consulting led me to write a book. There wasn’t any primer on social media yet. I wanted to share what I knew with as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. It took me three weeks to write The Zen Of Social Media Marketing, which I initially self-published as an e-book. It sold like hotcakes and was picked up by a publisher. It’s now in its fourth edition and is used as a textbook at universities around the world to teach social media.
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After the book, I transitioned the blog into a company, renamed it Zen Marketing Group and kept building my name as a marketing expert. The ‘Zen’ really signifies the approach needed for marketing and business to be successful in this day and age – going with the flow rather than against it.
Initially, I focused on just social-media marketing and consulting. Today, Zen Marketing Group has grown to being an integrated online marketing and digital PR firm, which means we teach people how to do social media. For about 80% of clients, we are the web-marketing department: we handle all their content, social, SEO, reputation management, e-mail marketing campaigns, digital PR, social-media advertising and blogger outreach. Essentially a client comes to us and says, ‘We want more visibility’ – and we have a machine to make that happen.
We were too busy to be scared, kinda like when you’re the captain of a ship and the storm hits. You don’t have a lot of time to think, you just jump into action. I had to hire a search team, a social team, a web development and content team. We had a huge leap very quickly. I hired 15 people by the end of the first year. I did very little recruiting. People found me through social media, my blog and my book. They wanted to be a part of what I was doing.
When I started blogging, local meet-up groups and small associations asked me to come speak and tell them about Facebook, Twitter and social media. These engagements started in my home town but the invitations quickly came from all over the country. That’s when I started charging them to cover my travel, in addition to my keynote fee. Now I speak at about 20 to 25 events a year. Keynote speaking wasn’t something that I sought out. It just sort of worked out that way.
I’m really lucky that during these conferences I also get to hear other people and their research. So much of this business is keeping up with the industry. I probably spend two hours a day just reading and keeping up with trends. There is so much, and it moves extremely fast.
I feel like I have three constituents – our clients, our internal team and the audience at large, which constitutes more than a million reach, including blog readers, social media followers, etc. Every day, I try to make sure I’m creating value in these three realms. I look for what opportunities we can leverage for clients, how I can continue to make Marketing Zen a better place to work, and I continue to blog, write and speak about what I know, so I can educate across the board.
It’s a lot of work but I thrive on that. There are a lot of 18-hour days and 100-hour weeks but I wouldn’t say it’s been a sacrifice. I’ve been really lucky. To see the results of your hard work is the greatest reward.
Now we have 20 employees and we are totally virtual. We have never had a headquarters. We have team members from San Diego to Washington. I enjoy being able to work from some of the coolest places in the world. I’ve been at work overlooking Niagara Falls, a market in Japan and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. If I have a client in London, I’ll go for a week to work and explore. Our team members are able to do that too. Having that flexibility in my career has been really rewarding.
My goal is to keep the company growing and really make sure we’re doing relevant, valuable work for our clients. The how of that will continue to evolve. It’s so hard not to compare yourself to others but it’s a lesson I try to pass along. We live in an age of selfiedom and the Kardashians. In some ways, it’s so hard to see other people and wonder why you’re not doing better, faster. That’s something everyone suffers from but women tend to be harder on themselves. You have to remind yourself that your path is your path. No-one is going to match that. Whatever opportunities you’re given, show up and be your best.
This article was originally published on Cosmopolitan.com