Entrepreneur Karen Johnson Macumber '84 Finds Opportunity in Challenges
On starting a business without business experience: "The pro is, you're not restricted by what people have told you won't work. The con is, you can make some pretty costly mistakes while you're learning."
Within a couple years of starting her own company, Fulgent Media Group, Karen Johnson Macumber '84 found herself hunting around for a new job. Fulgent, a media agency that specialized in online marketing, had soared atop the dot.com bubble only to come crashing down when the bubble deflated in 2001.
"All of a sudden, no one wanted anything to do with the Internet," Macumber recalls. Fearing she would have to close her agency, Macumber anxiously looked around for work. One interview went well enough that she felt fairly certain she had the job. Luckily for her, she was wrong.
"They called me up and said they felt I wasn't right for the job because I was too entrepreneurial," Macumber says. "To this day I want to hug and kiss them and say, 'Thank you, thank you.'"
Her would-be employer's hunch proved accurate. Macumber regrouped and steered her company through the downturn. She shifted Fulgent's focus toward more traditional media buying until skittishness about the Internet wore off, and then integrated the two. By 2006, Fulgent was billing some $20 million annually, and serving big-name clients like Polaroid and Genzyme. In 2008, Macumber sold Fulgent to Alloy Media and Marketing, in New York.
Not bad for an anthropology major with no previous business experience. "When I started, I didn't even know what a P&L (profit and loss statement) was," Macumber says. "Thankfully, I had a very kind and understanding accountant who was willing to take me through the whole process."
A native of New York who moved to New Hampshire in her teens, Macumber now lives in Sherborn, Mass., where she is chief executive officer of a social media platform startup scheduled to launch in January. This time, the challenge is learning how to raise venture capital.
Macumber started out on a career path more obviously suited to someone with an advanced degree in anthropology and museum studies (from George Washington University). In 1986, she became an exhibition assistant at the Smithsonian, where she worked alongside a curator in the archaeology section helping to coordinate traveling exhibitions. The work was interesting, but opportunities for advancement were slim.
"It became apparent that you don't become a curator at the Smithsonian until someone else dies," Macumber says. "And living off $13,000 a year was challenging."
So she used her exhibition experience to find work with trade associations. Then in 1993 she took on event marketing for Ziff-Davis Interactive in Boston. As part of a team that launched one of the first online publishing and advertising platforms, Macumber gained valuable Internet experience just as the medium was taking off. That experience led her to her next job with Monster.com, the online job board then in startup mode. Macumber directed marketing and public relations, and as she watched the company grow, she recognized that her cache of Internet knowhow was now a valuable commodity. After three years, in 1999, Macumber struck out on her own.
From the start, she says, she had a clear vision for Fulgent: change the way the media industry operates. "Very lofty, but I needed that kind of drive to say, I think we can make a difference," Macumber says. "Most companies are not started because you want to make a lot of money. They're started because you have a passion and you feel you can make a difference and a change."
At Fulgent, that meant integrating traditional and online media buying, at a time when most agencies segregated the two. Fulgent also used a consulting model in which they developed media strategies for clients and made a sound business case for the recommended expenditure.
When pitching new clients, Fulgent frequently found itself up against much larger agencies armed with extravagant, flashy presentations. The Fulgent team couldn't compete at that level—they were more likely to throw up a flat Power Point sequence—so instead they armed themselves with data. Lots of it.
"We had to blow them away upfront with information, so that they really looked at us as being invaluable to them in terms of being able to tell them all this stuff about their audience that they didn't know," Macumber says.
Now, in her latest venture, Macumber feels as though she's come full circle. The startup, called SproutShout, is also about curation—the preservation and maintenance of digital material. SproutShout will enable parents to have a digital vault to save and share family photos, videos and other digital memorabilia. The company's founder—i.e., the guy with the vision—is Jeremy Daly.
A mother of two, Macumber is once again working very long hours, as she did in Fulgent's early days. Her aim is more lofty than ever, as she sets out to make SproutShout "a brand that's bigger than life."
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Written by Lisa Prevost '84.