Jamaica Gleaner / Danielle Terrelonge Irons, founder and CEO of DRT Communications Limited, never set out to become an entrepreneur. She knew from an early age that she was called to be a leader, but in what capacity, she had no idea. In college, the world of business was the furthest thing from her mind initially, as she studied psychology for two years at the University of Western Ontario. She returned to Jamaica in 2000 and completed her degree at the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she added management studies to her programme. She became entrenched in marketing soon after, and found that it was a natural fit and she excelled at it, moving from marketing communications officer at Jamaica Money Market Brokers (JMMB) to marketing manager at Trade Winds Citrus in 2006.
But even before she made the move to Trade Winds Citrus, the idea that she should start her own business had begun to take shape. She struggled with the call in her spirit. She had a full-time job that she loved, a child to care for and bills to pay; she just couldn’t figure out how to make that all work financially, so she ignored it.
The nudge wouldn’t go away, and only became stronger. She began seeing gaps in the local public relations and marketing industry, as the demand for her freelance guidance in strategic marketing planning and PR development began to increase. What finally made her say yes, though, was a moment with her daughter, who was approaching her GSAT year: “We were reading the Bible one night and she pointed at a Roman numeral and said, ‘Mommy, that’s 110.’ And I said, ‘How did you know that?’ and she said ‘Mommy, I did Roman numerals two weeks ago.’ And my heart sank, because I knew in that moment that I had missed two weeks of math – in essence two weeks of her life – because of work and not making that my priority. My job at Trade Winds was very, very, very hectic and I was gone all the time. I wanted to see if I could adjust my life to be there more for her.”
‘ Are you crazy? You have a child!’
Danielle is used to people judging her based on appearance. Upon meeting her, many people assume that she is just another ‘Uptown’ girl, born with a gold spoon in her mouth, but she will quickly dispel that notion by sharing how hard her single father worked to take care of his three daughters. Most would not peg her as a Christian, either, with her funky haircut and nose piercing, but she will testify of the role faith has played in her life and her journey as an entrepreneur. It certainly takes faith to step out of a boat – the security of a full-time, well-paying job – and into the choppy, uncertain waters of entrepreneurship.
But it’s human to hesitate and wonder, and although she had made up her mind and had drawn up her business plan, the concern and warnings from well-meaning family members and friends caused her to step back for a minute. She explained: “Everyone told me I was crazy. ‘Are you nuts? No way. You have a child, you have a mortgage, you have responsibilities. Don’t be irresponsible.’ But the feeling would not go away. One Sunday, I prayed about it and I said, ‘Lord, for the next 30 days, I’m not praying about anything else, because I need to hear You loud and clear. I need to know. So whether you’re telling me to do this business or not do this business, I need to know.’ On the third morning, I woke up and I knew without a doubt that God had said, ‘Start the business. Mi nuh know wah yu a wait pon.’ I tell people, I knew in my know that it was the right thing to do. I didn’t even tell my family. I went to work and I resigned. I had an awesome boss. I adore him as a person to this day. I learnt so much from him. And he was upset, asking, ‘Danielle, tell me what you need. How can I keep you?’ And that’s when I really, really knew, because no amount of money could sway me. I’m a mother bringing up a child, so any dollar helps, but I knew in my know that I should start this business. That was about April 2008, and we officially started in July 2008.”
The DRT journey
DRT Communications is a marketing communications agency, which is also the first company in the Caribbean to offer technology-driven media monitoring services. This service enables companies to monitor their mentions across all media types worldwide – radio, television, newspapers, social media and online sources, in order to properly analyse and improve their current marketing strategies.
The company has certainly come a long way from Danielle’s bootstrapping days. “I literally started with nothing. I tell people I started with negative $500,000. In the February, prior to starting the business, I’d taken a personal loan of $500,000, so really, I started with a negative balance. But I worked. I never knew anything else but work,” she recalled.
Like many other entrepreneurs, Danielle started at home. “Just for perspective, when I say I started a ‘business,’ I mean it was a consultancy. It was just me, and I had a desk in front of my bed. The word ‘business’ didn’t come until long after. My first two employees worked at my dining table. The only reason I moved out was because I was getting married, and it was a good step. It’s been little by little by little, brick by brick. I’ve been given grace in many ways.”
Grace was certainly needed on several occasions, as income often fluctuated from month to month. In fact, there were months when DRT Communications didn’t make a red cent in profit. “Some months you make $5,000, some months you make $10,000, and another month you make $200,000. Learning to balance that and not doing a very good job at first, figuring it out, was rough. Some of the mistakes I made then, I’m still paying for to this day,” Danielle shared.
She recalled one particularly harrowing experience, one which she sometimes shares with students whenever she’s called on to give motivational talks. On this instance, she was uniform shopping with her daughter for the back-to-school season when the mortgage company called, threatening foreclosure as she had gone more than 90 days without making a payment. She managed to cobble together $5,000 and make a payment to stave off the threat, and she considers that loan officer something of a guardian angel who stood by her and helped her through the roughest patch.
Understanding these lean days, having experienced them herself, Danielle now seeks to extend that same grace to her own clients and contractors who work with DRT. For instance, she ensures that the company looks out for the persons who are just starting out and pays them first. “My assistant said to me, ‘How come you don’t stress about this stuff anymore?’ I say, ‘Because I cried for so long. But every time I finished crying, I would turn around and say, ‘God, help me.’ Now, I’m just starting at the ‘God, help me’ part, because He’s the one who told me to start this business, so I’m not even worrying,” she said. “And the truth is, we’ve made it through. We might go through a crunch for a small period, but we’ve never missed a payroll, our bills are paid. My accountant is like, ‘I’ve never seen a business just grow in the way that you continue to grow.’ And I put that to my faith and just working hard.”
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