Doesn’t everyone love a good origin story? We do, and as we continue celebrating the 10th anniversary of Soukup Strategic Solutions, we sat down with the company president and founder, Sheryl Soukup, to ask how the business started.
Sheryl, tell us the story of how Soukup Strategic Solutions began.
Sheryl Soukup: I had worked as an executive director for over ten years, and I found that there were some things that I really loved doing and was skilled at in the nonprofit realm. When you are an executive director for a small to medium-sized nonprofit, you wear a lot of hats. I knew that I wasn’t good at all the hats, and what I really loved to do were the things I was best at. There came a point that I wanted to concentrate my efforts and time on the things that I was most skilled at and deeply enjoyed.
I also thought it would be really cool to have an impact beyond just one organization, to be able to work with many organizations and have a wider impact on the community at large. Working with the leaders of organizations and building the organizations’ capacity would, in turn, help them do more good in the community. So, my impact would be greater as well. I thought that would be very fulfilling. Plus, I like to build stuff. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, which is why I enjoy working with nonprofits. It’s why I like starting nonprofits–I like harnessing that entrepreneurial spirit for the social good.
Starting a business was something fun and exciting to delve into. But it was a big risk. I was a single mom at the time, and to fund my startup, I sold my house. I took the proceeds from my home and invested them in the business. I moved my three kids from a spacious four-bedroom house into a tiny condo to save money. I even worked in the condo because I didn’t have an office when I started the business. I took care of my kids and worked really, really hard.
The business got off to a great start. I did a lot of collaborating as an executive director, so I knew many other nonprofit executive directors in town and had good relationships with them. When I told people that I would be doing this work, people responded very positively and said, ‘Oh, I would love to work with you!” I had work immediately. I was so fortunate that way.
The causes that I’m personally most passionate about are affordable housing and services to make the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities better. Just as I was starting the business, there was a large organization in Tallahassee that I had worked with in the past. They had a project to provide affordable housing for people with developmental disabilities. This project married the two causes that are most important to me! Their executive director shared the project and said, “You’ve volunteered on a workgroup on this topic before, and we’re not getting any proposals for this project. Would you be interested in putting a proposal in?” I said yes! It was a perfect fit for me because I cared so much about this cause. I was awarded that sizable contract. I could have just worked on that one project, and I would have been fine financially. But I also had local work with other nonprofit organizations.
As time went on, I put in proposals for other projects with that same big nonprofit in Tallahassee, and I got another project and another project and another project. I ended up doing five projects with them, and most of them were multi-year. As a result, I had a base of work that gave me some security. Not that there wasn’t any risk at all, but the security of the contracts I had in hand gave me the freedom to take some chances. Thus, I hired people and opened an office.
Eventually, I went to the Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University and said, “I really think we should develop a marketing growth plan. Can you help me do this?” The marketing plan was to attract more local nonprofit organizations to work with.
When Hurricane Irma hit, we were in the middle of implementing that plan. I had presented at a workshop called Think Outside the Box, and, at that event, I signed up 20 nonprofits for follow-up consultations. They were all scheduled to come to our office. We had just started the consultations when Hurricane Irma hit. After that, the rest of the nonprofits canceled their consultations. Everyone was focused on hurricane response.
All of the prospects dried up, just like that. So that was a little bit of a challenge. But after disasters, nonprofits always have an intense need for help. Nonprofits get busy helping, and donors start giving. So, after a brief period, we were busy again. I continued to build up the business. We just grew incrementally: a little bit more, a little bit more.
During COVID, we shrank again. Nonprofits were concerned about fundraising – most canceled their events due to the pandemic and were concerned about where the funds they counted on raising through events would come from. Some nonprofits also lost program revenue because their in-person, on-site activities were scaled back or eliminated, at least for a while. In an effort to keep their staff, some of our nonprofit clients reduced or eliminated their work with us. But things came back around. Nonprofits got their PPP loans. There were many people and organizations in the community that needed help during COVID, and donors responded generously. After a brief period of shrinkage, our business continued growing. Since COVID began, our business has grown 73% and is at its peak to date.
We are very grateful to all of the nonprofits who have put their trust in our team of consultants, and I’m very proud of what we’ve helped them to accomplish. I’m honored to work with such a dedicated and talented team of professionals who have deep insight into the nonprofit sector.
Do you have any advice for someone wishing to start their own business?
Whether you’re thinking about starting a nonprofit or a for-profit business, there are a few important things to consider. First, it’s not for the faint of heart! People will be counting on you to lead the organization through challenging times. There are times in every organization when the CEO is called upon to make tough, heart-aching decisions. In a nonprofit, the CEO has to put the organization before self. In a for-profit, it’s the shareholders that come first. However, if you’re the only shareholder, then you tend to be led by your values and what is most important to you. Whether you run a for-profit or nonprofit, when times are tough in your business, you’ll be called upon to make some of the most important decisions in your life – decisions that can have a significant impact not only on you but also on many others – and sometimes none of your choices are ones you want to make.
Also, running a successful organization requires a great deal of sacrifice and discipline. While some people get wildly lucky, most CEOs work really hard, with long hours and much more stress than the average worker. Over time, however, the hard work and discipline may pay off, and the CEO can realize her dream of building a successful business that is able to run without her. For me, that is the ultimate goal: to build an organization that successfully accomplishes its mission without me as the founder having to be involved in the operations on a day-to-day basis. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer!
The last point to consider is whether you are truly passionate about what you are hoping to do with your new venture. If you are starting a business just to make money, then you should make sure that you’re really passionate about making money! Hopefully, there’s more to it than that, but whatever your mission, it’s got to be something that really drives you and inspires you on a day-to-day basis. It should be something that resonates deep inside of you and eggs you on to keep going when things are tough and inspires you to try new ways of doing things in response to the world around you. When you find that passion, your business is no longer really work. It’s something you pursue like a love affair.
Last week someone was talking to me about succession planning and suggested that I needed to have a plan for if I won the lottery because, surely, I would no longer be working. On the contrary! I have dreams and things I want to accomplish with my business; I wouldn’t quit just because I won the lottery. After taking care of my family’s needs, I’d use the lottery money to fund the expansions I can see in my mind’s eye. This is not a job I want to quit. Regardless of how much money a lottery win would offer, I would continue pursuing my dream — but maybe with a few more vacations!
I hope each of you who is considering a new venture will find a way to harness the passion that resides within you and that you will use it with courage and discipline to pursue your biggest ideas and dreams!