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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: EvolveMKD

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Megan Driscoll is the founder and chief executive officer of EvolveMKD, a company engaged in both traditional public relations campaigns and social media content creation for clients in the healthcare, beauty and lifestyle areas. Megan grew up in Brooklyn and, later, in suburban New Jersey. Her parents, she says, were the antithesis of entrepreneurs: her mom taught school and her dad worked as a CPA. As a child, she “aspired to be President of the United States... or a hair stylist,” Megan says with a smile.

For her first job while in high school, she greeted customers at Gap Kids, standing at the door and saying “hi” to customers. This, Megan notes, “introduced me to client service and the importance of first impressions and of welcoming every person who comes into your place of work.”

Sports, a childhood passion — including volleyball, basketball, softball and track— also shaped her, Megan says. At the end of each season, she frequently won the Most Improved Player Award. Looking back, she says that “learning ways to improve my skills and strategies and become a better teammate primed me for business achievement.” Indeed, she is not comfortable with anything less than constant improvement, she says. “My staff and clients deserve a leader who is willing to evolve.” This is why she named her business EvolveMKD, she says, adding her initials for personal emphasis.

In college, she was confused about her goals, with personal ideals and parental influence sometimes conflicting. She knew she wanted to do something that involved working with people while her parents encouraged a more traditional career path. On top of that, she majored in public policy at the University of Chicago, an institution well known as a pipeline for consulting or banking. She used her summer internships astutely, trying wealth management, then energy consulting and finally working at the American Medical Association. She learned how a consultancy operated and made her first professional connections in healthcare.

When she graduated, in 2002, the economy was still in a recession after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She received an offer for a paying job at a major wealth management company and an unpaid internship at a leading communications marketing firm. She took the internship. As it happened, she was soon hired into a paid position in their healthcare group.

"My staff and clients deserve a leader who is willing to evolve."

Her Own Business

Over the next 10 years, Megan held posts at a number of PR agencies, each with different models and specialties. “Every job at every agency prepped me for starting my own firm,” she says, not only in terms of which practices to implement but also which to avoid.

Megan states that “there was nothing romantic about starting my own business. It actually started out of necessity.” It certainly wasn’t a choice she made on a whim: many of her mentors at other agencies tried to nudge her in that direction, she says. She eventually joined an agency and became a partner but the partnership was short lived. “I felt my partner and I were evolving at different speeds, and I realized we had different philosophies and values on how to run a business.” With the demise of that partnership, and with the encouragement of her husband and her attorney, she began to consider starting her own agency.

She knew that if she took that step and the business failed, she could always find another job. And so, at the age of 34, and just days after dissolving the partnership, Megan opened her own agency, keeping the clients she had negotiated from her former partner when she left that business.

At the outset, she drew on her savings to pay for computers, cell phones and marketing materials, she says, and housed the company in the apartment she shared with her husband. As for employees, she began by using freelancers she had worked with in her prior 10 years in the industry. But she soon realized that “in a 24/7 client service business, clients needed continuity and I needed staff who could commit more time and heart to the agency.” Three months after launch, she hired her first two full-time employees.

"Learn and practice financial prudence."

Megan says she did the right thing by “incubating my business in the apartment because it kept my costs down.” With a client base in place, the company did well almost from Day One, she says. A significant challenge in this industry is covering expenses while waiting for clients to pay for the PR services they’ve received. Megan used her corporate credit card to cover the gap, but with her growth found that she needed to increase the limit. Although she was putting revenue through her operating account, her banker wasn’t willing to extend more credit unless she collateralized it with savings. “One credit officer denied me credit because he could not understand how my company’s growth and profitability could have happened so quickly,” she says. She switched to another lender, with an introduction from her accountant, and started doing business and developing what she calls a “first-rate relationship” with the banker.

Six months after the launch, Megan had a full-time staff of six and moved into offices at WeWork, a workplace provider for small companies. She soon realized that it was time to open her own offices and hit another snag. Even though her business was profitable, landlords seemed unwilling to rent to her without financial backing. “A bigger shock came when I finally located a space, and at the last minute the landlord tried to add a clause requiring a personal guarantee from my husband” – in other words, more entrenched gender bias. She countered by asking the owner whether he had ever asked a wife to guarantee a lease. “He backed down,” she says.

Business Growth

The speed of her company’s growth constantly surprises Megan, who believes that the reason about half of new businesses fail is that their founders have insufficient background in the industries they’ve chosen. She points to her decade in healthcare and beauty PR — “Those years count for something,” she says.

Megan works hard, she says, which helps hold down the cost of labor. While her scope is expansive, she carefully weighs her involvement with each client’s projects. She considers herself an ace delegator and is, she says, “very comfortable with other people receiving accolades and success and running with the ball.”

What has helped her company stand out is using her employees’ strengths as well as having a clear niche, especially when introducing new technology or aesthetic innovations that impact women’s health and beauty in a positive way. Strategically, Megan says, she is seeking to master the areas her company is in today before expanding into other areas. She also notes that her reputation for service and kindness has resulted in many referrals.

Megan says she continues to build top- notch back office systems and processes, particularly for managing her cash flow and receivables. She recognizes that she has sound “instincts” for overseeing the processes and resources for a project but has had to make an effort to fully grasp cash flow and the financial details of running a business. She appreciates that really knowing one’s numbers and understanding one’s financials gives one power and control. She suggests that anyone interested in starting a business “should find the savviest lawyer, accountant, bookkeeper and IT advisor they can afford and they should invest time to regularly talk to them.” At the same time, she adds, “They should realize that eventually they’ll outgrow these individuals and should not shrink from finding new providers when the time comes.” Her mother has joined the firm as the office manager and Megan sees her, along with her husband, her business coach and some long standing clients, as key advisors. Mentors matter, too, she says, and has learned from a circle of other women business owners through the Women Presidents Organization.

Employees and Giving

Megan remains committed to creating a top-notch workplace for women. She feels strongly that “employees cannot achieve their best unless they are treated well and are challenged and nurtured to meet their full potential.” With her company she has, she says, “created a haven of kindness and respect.” Her team knows that “mean people” are not tolerated, neither as employees nor as clients. She gives generous employee benefits and fervently encourages her all-female staff to invest in 401(k) retirement accounts and matches their contributions. She has regular events to bring parents, other family members and friends to the office.

". . . employees cannot achieve their best unless they are treated well."

Megan investigated becoming a certified women-owned business but ultimately decided against it. “If I decide to sell the business, the certification can limit the pool of buyers to just women or lead to a lower valuation selling it to men because they would lose the contracts awarded due to the women-owned certification,” she says.

One difficulty she’s found in making a corporate culture function well is that when different generations work together, they tend to speak their own “language” and have different priorities. As a leader, “you make choices that benefit the majority, accepting that you can’t please everyone with every decision,” she says “I try to make decisions that are near the middle and customize some activities or perks so that there is something for everyone.”

Megan has pledged to give away 10% of the company’s profits to “make the world a better place,” primarily by providing aid to underserved women and children. Last year, the company donated $125,000 to cover reconstructive surgery to a woman who was the victim of domestic violence, buy a van to assist women who had escaped sex trafficking, and help a family who lost everything in the California fires.

Megan has publically discussed her view that women should consider not having children, her choice at this time of her life. Her secret to a life/work balance is to calendar every important activity. Nonnegotiable, she says, are date nights with her husband and exercise activities, including Pilates sessions. She believes in planning and spending the most she can on quality business travel. “Traveling well is critical to work/life balance,” she says.

Goals

As Megan’s business enters its fourth year, her goal is to have $10 million in revenues by 2020 — just six years after launching. As she grows, she hopes to diversify and broaden her offering across all aspects of marketing and enter other industries, possibly through the acquisition of other agencies or through strategic hires. She also plans to develop intellectual property (IP) like proprietary measurement tools. To date, she has grown without outside funding and recognizes that acquisitions and IP development could change that.

In her experience, clients demand a lot, so Megan imagines some time way in the distant future when she might just “get tired” and set out in a new direction. She wants financial comfort in her life and conservatively manages her money. She sees wealth as the ability to maintain control of one’s life and is happy that now she can pick and choose her clients. She stresses that her company’s purpose is not to create wealth. EvolveMKD embodies the environment that she wished she could have enjoyed in the early days of her career. Agencies typically burn out personnel and run a bit “like sweat shops,” she says. She acknowledges that experiments in fostering a better culture have made her business harder but she passionately cares about her employees and about contributing as a good corporate citizen. She knows that sustaining this culture as her payroll grows to 100 people will be a challenge.

Advice

Megan’s advice to women who desire to start their own business is first to save and work diligently to raise one’s credit score. Potential founders should seek experience in the industry that interests them, especially at the lower levels of the corporate structure, before going out on their own. Megan says that Evolve’s impressive growth has been helped by the fact that she herself has done many jobs in the industry and knows what her people at every level ought to do.

". . . cultivate the courage to overcome the fear of walking away."

“The main thing women need in order to succeed more in business,” Megan says, somewhat enigmatically, “is to learn to be ruthless — not ruthless with others but ruthless with kindness.” She adds, some of her clients are surprised when she negotiates aggressively, expecting her, as a woman, to be “nice.” She is very loyal, she says, although she sees that as a potential stumbling block, as “you can ‘outgrow’ some advisors and employees.” “One of the best pieces of advice I can offer is to cultivate the courage to overcome the fear of walking away,” from lucrative yet problematic business deals, for instance. “Occasionally you have to make decisions that in the short term may seem emotional and are not taken well by others. But if they are made from a business perspective, those decisions will almost always prove right and people will respect you for it. You must look out for yourself first, your team second and everything else third.”

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