Capturing Lightning
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Marissa Taffer

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“For people who hustle
and work hard, there are
always jobs. There are always opportunities.”

Marissa Taffer, founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting

Marissa Taffer is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting, an agency that helps organizations grow, whether through effective project management, increased client engagement, or enhanced business development and growth strategies. Here she talks about the empowerment that comes from knowing your worth, and her efforts to make time for work and play—especially with her beloved dog Charlie.

What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
I started interviewing [for a new job], and people were like, “You should do the thing!” And I was like what? Start a business? Me? Really? A mentor of mine goes, “You should really do this.” Then she calls me one day and goes, “No, really: You have to do this. I have a lead for you.” Within about a month, I now had three clients, and I’m going, “Okay, I guess I have to do the thing.”

I joke that I’m the stereotypical millennial who started a business so I could work from home and give my dog a better life. [Laughs] That’s the ha-ha moment of it, but I’ve also realized that I’ve given myself a better life, too. Not that there’s anything wrong with climbing the corporate ladder and doing it the way our parents did. But even when I was in college, I always thought I wanted my own thing. I always said it. I never had the balls to do it. I think finally I was pushed a little bit, but at the same time, it wasn’t like being pushed off a cliff. It was more like mama bird kicking a baby bird out of the nest: You have everything you need, go fly now.

What about entrepreneurship appeals to you?
It’s so different. Like, I haven’t used an alarm clock in six months. I get up when the dog gets up. We start our day when we start our day. Client crises—especially because I’ve been so blessed with fabulous clients—are few and far between. The stuff that seemed so important suddenly doesn’t. It’s a very different experience of being a freelancer and being able to set your own rates and tell people what you’re worth. And when people don’t want to pay it, you can tell them to eff off.

The comfort for me always was in knowing that, if this didn’t work, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? I’ve been fired. That was awful. I always thought getting fired only happened to bad people who didn’t do their jobs. I had never before [that job] been in a situation where a job just wasn’t a fit. But I landed on my feet. I’m doing fine. They’re doing fine. Nobody broke anything. For people who hustle and work hard, there are always jobs. There are always opportunities. There are always people who want to work with you. And that’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s about making the choice that’s best for you and finding really great partners.

Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Especially as a younger woman, imposter syndrome is definitely a big one. Really having to do the Amy Cuddy power pose before you walk into certain rooms and say to yourself, “I have the skills. I have the experience. I deserve to be in this room.” 

I think for me too was career growth. It’s making sure I’m continuing to learn. I’m coming up on six months [of running my own business], and the one piece of advice that people always give you is: Work on your business, not in your business. I’m always afraid that I’m going to lose sight of the “work on your business” piece because I’m so entrenched in what I’m doing with clients.

Yeah, it’s really scary. The flipside is it’s also really rewarding. But every day, you have to get up and make sure you have a thick enough skin to deal with it all.

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“I joke that I’m the stereotypical millennial
who started a business
so I could work from
home and give my dog
a better life.”

Marissa Taffer, founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting

What has been your greatest struggle in bringing your consulting business to life?
I’ve had it pretty easy as far as new businesses. People tell me these stories about how they failed spectacularly. And mine’s probably coming! I don’t think I’m immune from it or anything like that. I think for me, the biggest obstacles is making sure I’m ruthlessly prioritizing my time and learning how to say no. On Tuesday night, I was invited to four fantastic events. There was a very good reason to go to each one of the four. Could I have probably gone to two? Yeah, but that’s a lot of running around. In the early days of my business, I probably would have done it and been exhausted on Wednesday. I said no. I picked one. I went to one. I deeply engaged with the people that were there. And that’s it.

But with that said, I never want to be in a position where a client can’t call me because they want to talk through an idea. So it’s like, how do you set the schedule and the tone, but also have enough flexibility that you can pick up the phone, brainstorm, and be creative? I think it’s a fantastic problem to have and it’s a problem that I always want to strive to solve. I don’t think I’m ever going to solve it perfectly and I’m okay with that.

What has been your biggest sacrifice?
For the first couple months, I think it’s social life. I think I spent a lot of time with my head down in business stuff. So it’s just like, remembering to be a person, too. I do a lot of networking and get to connect with people that way, but it’s not the same as being able to go out on a Saturday night with your girlfriends and just totally let your hair down. It’s been a different kind of social life.

Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
No, but I don’t think my parents fully understand what I do. My mom even said to me the other day—we were on the phone and I said something about how I’ve been working with this new client, and she knows that I’m really happy, but also she has no idea what any of it means. She goes, “When people ask me what you do, what do I tell them?” I said, “Mom, I do business development and project management.” She goes, “Oh! Business development and project management! That sounds good!” [Laughs]  

And maybe not even so much dissuading, but the other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people have opinions about how I run my business. So like I was saying something about something not working out the way I thought it would, and somebody goes, “Oh, well you should have done this!” Well, you know nothing about my business. You know nothing about how I structured my contract. I feel like everybody and their mother has an opinion about how you should run a business. At the end of the day, it’s my business; it’s my choice.

Tell me about your work-life balance.
It’s always going to be a work in progress. I try to be very clear about expectations. So like, I try to get acupuncture once a week. I try to go to yoga at least twice a week. Spending time with the dog, making sure he gets all his walks and care—so really figuring out what those non-negotiable things are and committing to them. And it’s communication; it’s making sure people know what those things are.

It’s that balance. It’s making sure you’re available, giving people time. I’m actually trying this new thing where I really would like to start putting some more agenda-free coffees on my schedule. I know it’s really hard for people to make that time, but I think it’s really important to connect with people as people. So I’ve been reaching out to business leaders I admire, to past and prospective clients, to friends and mentors I haven’t seen in a while and treating it like: Let’s get together for a half an hour for coffee. No agenda. No script. It’s not necessarily about business. It’s just about connecting as two people. You never know what’s going to come out of those conversations.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
You know more than you think you do. I’ve been raising my hand a lot more for jobs I probably wouldn’t have if it were going to be my one, full-time thing. Whereas, when you’re fractional with a company or with a project, you can raise your hand a little bit more and try. You’re not married to it for life. You get to raise your hand and say yes a lot more. Being able to raise your hand is really important. Having the opportunity to try things is awesome. You’re going to hear the word “no” more than you’ve ever heard it in your life, and that’s okay. And then probably last one is try it. What’s the worst that could happen? If you have an idea, if it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, try it.

This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.