Susan founded Just Marry! in 1992 in the bedroom of her parents’ home. Since then, she has collaborated with thousands of happy couples to plan their big days. Her tenacity, talent, and persistence helped her grow her company to include divisions for weddings, social events, and corporate destination management. In 2018, she achieved a long-time goal when Just Events! Group was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America.
In addition to running her company, Susan is a popular consultant for resorts, cruise lines, and small business owners who want to start or improve their social event businesses. She is also a renowned speaker, author, mentor, wife, and a proud mom of four great kids.
Look for Susan’s books: The Susan Southerland Secret: Personality Marketing to Today’s Bride, Complete Wedding Budget Guide for Wedding Planners, and the Perfect Wedding Workbook available at SusanSoutherland.com, Amazon.com, and ThePlannersLounge.com. Follow her on Instagram (@susan_southerland), Facebook (Susan Southerland Secret) and LinkedIn for inspiration, insight, and a dose of reality on weddings, business, and motherhood.
How did the concept for Just Events! Group come about?
Our company’s history dates back to before it became Just Events! Group, Inc. Soon after I graduated college, I decided I wanted to start my own business. I was planning events for my local convention and visitor’s bureau in their membership department. Because of my connection with the members, people started asking me where they should have their weddings. Free advice soon led to me getting paid to plan weddings. Shortly thereafter, I took the leap, leaving my full-time job and starting Just Marry!. I had steady growth with the company from 1992 until 2008. The recession was brutal to Just Marry! It took a couple of years to build the business back up. At that point, we decided that we needed to diversify so that we’d be able to better withstand an economic downturn and/or fluctuations in the market. That’s when my husband decided to leave his full-time job and start Just Right! Destination Management to appeal to the corporate market. We then decided to make an umbrella company, Just Events! Group, Inc., so that we could share resources.
How was the first year in business?
The first year for Just Marry! was pretty good. My expenses were low…it was a computer and me! I think I did 15 weddings that year. My salary wasn’t huge, but I was still living at home, so I wasn’t starving.
What was your marketing strategy?
Back then, it was all word of mouth. I did a lot of networking. I was very lucky to find catering managers who were very supportive of me and sent me lots of referrals.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
It’s been so long. It’s hard to remember how fast we grew, but we did grow every year. We suffered setbacks during the recession in 2008, but we learned some great lessons and were able to make changes that allowed us to grow enough to make it onto the Inc. 5000 list.
How do you define success?
I define success several ways: 1) Being proud of what you’ve done. I’ve built a company that makes me proud. I love the way our employees support our clients, work together as a team, and take care of each other. 2) Maintaining a strong work/life balance. I’ve been able to give my team liberal time off to spend with their families and take vacations, and I’ve been able to do the same. That strong work/life balance has always been important to me. 3) Helping others succeed. I’ve had the opportunity to share my experiences and expertise with others in the event industry and help them grow successful businesses. It’s a pleasure working with every one of them!
What is the key to success?
The key to success is being persistent and not being afraid of failure. Learn lessons and move on.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Understand your finances! It’s easy for people to take advantage of you when you aren’t watching closely. One of my biggest setbacks was when a payroll company I was using stole my payroll deposits to the IRS. The company was taking the money out of my account and not depositing it with the IRS. That should have been so easy for me to identify much sooner than I did. It wound up costing me a lot of money. Also, when cash is flowing nicely, it hides weaknesses in your business. When the cash slows down, it can lead to problems. Look at the bottom line, not just sales.
What are some quotes that you live by?
Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. I’d say that’s a favorite book and a favorite quote. I really admire him and how he does business. Purple Cow by Seth Godin was another favorite read, as was Good to Great. I recently heard a quote by Carol Burnett that was a good reminder: “It’s Her Turn.” She was referring to someone else getting a role she was up for and how she was initially disappointed. She realized that it just wasn’t her time yet. I like that better than the phrase, “If the door doesn’t open, it wasn’t your door,” because I’ve found that sometimes, the door opens up a little later than you expected, but it may eventually happen.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’d say the toughest days are when I realize that an employee is no longer the right fit for our company. I have friends who are entrepreneurs who tell me hire slow, fire quick. I just can’t seem to learn that lesson. It’s really hard for me to let people go. We are like family.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I have a really great team who helps keep my confidence up and pushes me forward even when things are tough. I find that when I speak to them, they give me different perspectives and we come up with new ideas and approaches.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Dream big. Some of the biggest and brightest companies started with one or two people and no money. If you have passion and persistence, you can succeed. Don’t dismiss any of your ideas. Keep a journal and write down everything you think of. As you review your journal, you may find some of your ideas to be ridiculous, but you may capture some gems!
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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