To mark Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) 2021, an international initiative where young people in six continents gain exposure to new and innovative business activities, the Sunday Guardian highlights internationally acclaimed Media Marketing Specialist, CEO and founder of Carli Communications, Carla Williams-Johnson.
Being recognised by top local and international publications and media houses was not foremost on Carla Williams-Johnson’s mind when she started her marketing and communications business in 2013. Observing that many small businesses and solopreneurs (persons who set up and run a business on their own) were not getting a return on investment as they lacked marketing and public relations knowledge, as well as, large budgets to spend in these areas, Williams-Johnson decided to take on the challenge. In seven years, she has been lauded as a media and marketing powerhouse.
When she spoke with Sunday Guardian, Williams-Johnson said she had wanted to pass on critical strategies gained in advertising at big companies like Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestle to small businesses that were often not taken seriously in their respective markets.
“One of the things people always told me was that I had not just an understanding of the media landscape, but how to creatively use the media landscape to help businesses grow. Advertising agencies would make room for bigger companies, but not give smaller businesses similar attention. I decided I would be an advocate for the small man,” she said.
Initially founding Carli Communications and officially registering her company in 2013, she made the bold move to fully venture out on her own a few years later when her position at a private company was made redundant. She went about devising methods to identify clients for the brands of mostly small businesses, ensuring that these businesses became more visible online and offline and creating inventive marketing campaigns to boost their revenue.
By 2017 she was named in Huffington Post and Thrive Global as one of the 99 Limit Breaking Female Founders. Forbes approached her two years later and throughout the pandemic, she has been featured in numerous publications and on podcasts like Buzzfeed and Home Business Magazine. Heralded as one of the Marketers to follow for 2020, she was the recent winner of Best Promotions Company—West Indies at the 2020 Media Innovator awards according to Britain’s Corporate Vision Magazine.
The savvy media marketing specialist and global marketing influencer admitted that such exposure was beyond anything she could ever imagine.
“It’s weird to see myself in these big publications. If you had asked me: do you see yourself in Forbes in the future, I would have laughed. Who is this little black girl from this tiny island? How did I get there? It’s weird to see all these accomplishments, but then I realised that I am fabulous because I’ve done all these things and I know what I’m talking about. I’m proud that I can show other business owners, especially from Trinidad and the Caribbean what is possible,” said the public relations expert who while growing up watched her father Garnet’s business prowess as he ran the family’s Office Restaurant Bar and Lounge in Barataria.
Although Williams-Johnson had years of experience, having launched her career with McCann (Erikson) in 2004, building her own business was an uphill climb for the single mother of a teen at the time. She laboured between making no profits and making just enough to cover her bills.
“There were days with long tears trying to prove myself to others, asking myself if I was insane for doing all this,” she recalled.
Finally, Williams-Johnson gained the attention of the Huffington Post.
“They sent me an email telling me they had been watching me and wanted to add me to their list of 99 Limit Breaking Female Founders. I thought it was spam.”
She ignored the email and they wrote again, eventually making her one of the few blacks or Caribbean people on the list.
The other interviews followed even in the height of the pandemic when Williams-Johnson had to revamp her business focus and shift to public relations, publicity and crisis management. This time she leaned on her experience of juggling her business with her then two-year-old son, her second child, to offer advice.
“I had four clients cancel within a day in March when the pandemic struck. When there’s a downturn, marketing is usually the first to be cut. So I said: we’re not in control of a lot of things, but I am in control of who sees me and hears me,” she recalled.
“I decided to jump on the PR train and I showed up everywhere; to mompreneurs who were struggling with productivity because they had toddlers at home. I decided I could show up to business owners and give them tips on how to pivot and implement new strategies. I was able to show up to black women.”
Forced to choose between work and their at-home responsibilities due to the pandemic, many of these businesswomen, it was reported, had been packing up their companies. Williams-Johnson said she tried to advise as many as possible how to keep fighting.
Though some of her bigger clients have been in the US and more recently, in the UK and New Zealand, Williams-Johnson mainly advises authors, coaches and small businesses with one or two branches who wish to expand locally or are looking to grow their business internationally.
“Sometimes we entrepreneurs tend to think we need to stay in Trinidad or whatever is our home country. But there is a whole market out there that may not live in your country and may buy from you if they know you exist, so you need to find a way to put your business out there so more people know about you.
“We grow up somehow believing that people in first world countries look down on us. We feel that they are better than us, but that is not true. For a long time, I was afraid to put myself in the foreign business landscape because I look different, sound different. Then, the day I decided to embrace what made me different—the same sing-song voice, the same Trini lingo, our beaches that we take for granted—once I embraced these things that me uniquely Trini, uniquely me, that’s when I started to blow up. That’s when people from abroad wanted to know more about me because it was my difference that made me special,” she said.
Q&A with CEO and founder of Carli Communications, Carla Williams-Johnson
Apart from being quintessentially Trinidadian what makes you a powerhouse, especially as a female in this field?
“I think it’s making clients comfortable because people can tell when you’re holding back and not being truthful. I think what makes me stand out is that I am myself; I make jokes laugh at my own mistakes. I’m relatable because when people hear about the things I have done they realise that if I could recover, they can too. When I first started I thought I knew it all and could do it all myself, but I realised that what makes me powerful is allowing others into my space to bounce ideas off of, being able to accept criticism, knowledge, information and do something with it.”
Is there anything you want to suggest to small companies, especially in terms of marketing via social media?
“When it comes to social media, I realise many companies have a love-hate relationship, especially with Facebook because someone told them you need to have a page and that was it. To me, more businesses need to put the social back in social media. They need to use social media to build relationships with their customers. Stop posting just the prices, you need to be more understanding. People are going through a lot because of the pandemic. You need to know your target so well that when they see you, they feel as if you know them. So create content that is engaging, give tips and helpful info to see them through whatever they might be going through and be as authentic as possible. People would buy and be advocates for your brand once they feel you understand them.”
What are the best lessons that you’ve learnt?
“You are on your own journey, so don’t try to grow too quickly. Like any other small business, I took time to prove myself to show that I’m not a fly-by-night but that I am actually using my knowledge and experience for good.
“Looking back, I can see some of the errors that I made; one of them is trying to grow too fast. By that, I mean thinking that I knew everything or that people were just going to accept me because I worked at y x, y and z and that wasn’t the case. You have to take time to grow. You have to try different things, do the research, see where your clients are and nurture them, build relationships with them. When I started back in 2004, it was a different kind of marketing. It was that we were speaking to you, whereas now, it’s we’re speaking for you; we want to form relationships. So I had to understand that clients are not just going to come to you.
“The second lesson I learned was not everybody is going to be part of your journey. This is friends, past colleagues, family; people who would have said: you can do this, but when you ask them for help they bail on you. There were a lot of disappointments over time where I thought people would be more supportive, but they made room for me to meet new people and those new people became my rocks.
How do you feel about many women feeling that they have to sacrifice jobs, businesses for family commitments, especially because of the pandemic and what advice would you give to them?
“It really broke my heart to see this because some were silent, but some were vocal and you heard the anguish, saw the tears. I felt bad that it came down to that, but there are many times when you as a female entrepreneur can lean on your sister in business to help you through.
“We keep thinking that because we have a business we have to do everything ourselves. We feel like we cannot tell people what we’re going through, that we cannot afford for people to help us. But when I first started, I bartered. A lot of us small businesses bartered to get the services we needed. Times are changing. Women are understanding that we’re over this whole woman against woman and working with too many women in one place is too much ‘comess’.
“We have groups specifically built to help women entrepreneurs grow and build their businesses. If it means that you have to barter or slow down then do it. It would help you keep going. Williams-Johnson will partner with two Trinidadian entrepreneurs to present the Business in Digital summit from November 10-12 which aims to assist Caribbean entrepreneurs through online interaction with successful entrepreneurs from Jamaica, St Lucia, Turks and Caicos and other Caribbean regions. Join in at www.yourbusinessisdigitalsummit.com. She will also do workshops through GEW, St Lucia and has a female entrepreneurship programme through the US Embassy teaching women business owners how to survive in these times.”