A Wicked Witch and Brand Storytelling: 10 KOTAWesome Reasons to Travel With Family to the Land of Oz (and Business Success)


Then and now: Katherine Kotaw and her daughters Bri and Kelsey. Today, the threesome run their brand storytelling agency, KOTAW Content Marketing, alongside their Pit Bull, Ivy, who serves as KOTAW's Brand Ambassador.

Then and now: Katherine Kotaw and her daughters Bri and Kelsey. Today, the threesome run their brand storytelling agency, KOTAW Content Marketing, alongside their Pit Bull, Ivy, who serves as KOTAW’s Brand Ambassador.

I didn’t have to dance with a scarecrow, dry a lion’s tears or click my heels three times to know that there’s no place like home.

For business. And business partnerships.

When I first became a stay-at-home entrepreneur, I didn’t measure success in terms of profits but in the number of times I was able to cheer my daughters at school events, spend evenings watching old movies and new TV shows with them and embark on impromptu, middle-of-the-week vacations with kids and dogs in tow.

By those measures, I was ridiculously successful. Bri and Kelsey could always count on me to be the audience member laughing, crying and applauding the loudest, becoming as invested as they in the fates of a three-faced woman named Eve and a vampire slayer named Buffy and writing excuse notes to teachers explaining the educational value of our “field trips.”

But I never really considered myself a business owner, much less a CEO. I was just a single mom, trying to enjoy my children’s childhoods and give them memories happier than the ones we’d left behind when we’d escaped from the man who abused, stalked and tried to kill us.

Taking Stock

It wasn’t until my daughters were grown and I had a chance to return to the Fortune 500 world that I realized I would always be an entrepreneur and that it was time to get serious about building a business. I didn’t want to work in a corner office on the 44th floor again.

But, if I wanted stock options, a pension or an extravagant expense account, I’d have to negotiate these terms with myself and not with a headhunter or C-level executive.

It was this thinking that led to the launch of KOTAW Content Marketing in the summer of 2013. But my daughters are largely responsible for its growth and its transition to KOTAW LLC, of which they are both partners.

Daughters as business partners! I never, ever imagined it. Their professed career interests never aligned with my own, and I thought my entrepreneurial experience – skipped breakfasts, midnight dinners, sleepless nights, uncertain income and certain stress — would have scared both of them off.

Taking Charge

Instead, they are now an integral part of the KOTAW Girl Gang. And as KOTAW celebrates its two-year anniversary, I thought it was time you got to know Bri and Kelsey as business partners as well as my daughters. And why bringing them on board was the smartest business decision I ever made.

Thinking about starting a family-owned business? You can read hundreds of cautionary tales, all of them valid. But when looking for your heart’s desire – or the most desirable business team – consider searching in your own backyard. It worked for Dorothy and me. Should you include family members in your company’s talent pool?

Here are my top 10 reasons to give nepotism a chance. And in honor of the recently retired king of late night, I’m listing them in David Letterman order:

Polka dot twins: Katherine Kotaw and her daughter, Kelsey, who grew up to be an artist (she never outgrew her love of polka dots—neither did Katherine!)

Polka dot twins: Katherine Kotaw and her daughter, Kelsey, who grew up to be an artist (she never outgrew her love of polka dots—neither did Katherine!)

10. You are more interested in building a business than padding your ego.

Employees who don’t share your DNA are generally pretty reluctant to tell a CEO that she made a major blunder – or appeared on camera with chocolate on her teeth. They’ll consistently tell you how great you are for as long as you sign their paycheck.

Family members – no matter how well paid – will always tell you, sometimes tactfully and sometimes with words as harsh as fluorescent lighting that you’ve made a mistake. And they’ll tell you in real time, sometimes with the live camera still rolling.

If you’re not confident in your abilities or leadership role, don’t give family members a key to the office, much less a place on the board of directors. They’ll rip your ego to shreds in the first quarter.

But, if you want your business to thrive, keep them close by. I sometimes feel like an unprepared schoolgirl called to the blackboard when Bri tells me she has a “few notes” on something I’ve written. She doesn’t miss a thing, from spacing errors to “did you really mean this?” inquiries. And that’s precisely why I want her eyes on every piece of content I produce.

The healthy criticism also extends to big picture issues as well – Is that the kind of client we want to take on? What are we getting out of this client relationship that will benefit us in the long term? How do we make this project a showcase for KOTAW and not just an immediate payday?

Bri and Kelsey are my most trusted advisors. They make KOTAW a better, stronger brand storytelling agency.

9. You struggle to keep track of appointments and to-do lists.

This might seem like a job for an office clerk or virtual assistant and probably would be if you keep regular hours. But if you get a lot of your genius ideas while walking your dog or lying awake in the middle of the night, it sure helps to share them with someone who goes to the park with you and sleeps in the same house.

“Will you please remind me…” is a sentence opener I utter at least 6 times a day and sometimes 24. And, fairly often, I forget my thought before I complete it, because my mind has already leapt ahead to a new topic.

I have no trouble keeping track of things important to my work, but the details vital to running a business or staying healthy seldom stick. An office assistant might remind me to sign checks, but only Bri makes sure I take my vitamins and allergy meds every day.

8. You do some of your best work in the middle of the night.

I envy people who can go to bed at midnight and sleep until 8. Sometimes I do, but it’s just as likely that I’ll go to sleep at 1, wake up at 3, write until dawn and take a nap until Ivy starts rah-rah-rooing at neighbors heading off to their office jobs.

Perhaps it’s genetics, but I can usually find one of my daughters awake – and ready to answer my odd questions – at any hour.

And if they’re both asleep? I’ll find chocolate almond clusters on my nightstand and freshly brewed iced tea in the kitchen.

If you can find a non-relative willing to keep up with your nearly round-the-clock schedule, hire him! Otherwise, woo your family members to work with you.

Women who write: Katherine Kotaw with her daughter, Bri, who grew up to follow in her mom's writer footsteps.

Women who write: Katherine Kotaw with her daughter, Bri, who grew up to follow in her mom’s writer footsteps.

7. You want the freedom to make quirky client choices.

I make unusual client choices. When I wanted to learn about organic SEO and Google rankings, for example, I sought out clients who needed these services so I could get a paid education in those skills. This may sound crazy – and it’s certainly risky – but I never say yes to anything unless I’m confident I can get results. (The client who wanted a page 1 Google ranking got it in 45 days so he was a well-served guinea pig.)

Making these kinds of choices is impossible if everyone on your staff has a clearly-defined job description — and how often can you find an accountant who is also proficient in Photoshop, social media marketing and art history?

I don’t think there’s anything Bri and Kelsey can’t do – and aren’t willing to try. We each bring a shared love of challenges and complementary talents to KOTAW. When we find a client who ignites our brand storytelling passions, we say yes and sort out the details later.

My daughters have mastered more new skills in two years at KOTAW than most workers do in their entire careers. And I never had to train them (good thing as a lot of what they’ve learned is beyond me.)

If your gene pool and talent pool are one and the same, hire a family member.

6. You are launching a new business.

It’s not money that kills most businesses, but cash. No matter how much your business is worth, it will go under if you can’t pay workers and creditors on time.

Family members who actually care about you and your business (and don’t consider the business bank account their personal piggybank) are much more likely to be receptive to waiting for paychecks than someone you hired off the street.

For one thing, you can show them your accounts receivables so they know exactly where things stand. For another, you can make them their favorite breakfast, take them on a picnic or pay their credit card bills while they’re waiting for a delayed check.

Katherine Kotaw's daughters, Bri and Kelsey. Today, the duo affectionately refer to one another as their "siamese sister" because they are always joined at the hip (and heart.)

Katherine Kotaw’s daughters, Bri and Kelsey. Today, the duo affectionately refer to one another as their “siamese sister” because they are always joined at the hip (and heart.)

5. You need business partners you trust.

When my mom said she wanted to add her two children to the deed to her house, a lawyer warned her that my brother and I could sell the home out from under her.

“If I can’t trust my children, who can I trust?” she asked. “Better to end up living in a box than live the rest of my life believing my kids will turn against me.”

Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose, tough to recover.

There are more valid reasons for forming business partnerships with an acquaintance than a loved one. Facts and logic support choosing an outsider.

But, if your business requires high-level decision making and leaps of faith (KOTAW sells stories, not shoes), it’s essential that you trust your partners.

And, at the end of the day, week, year or decade, I trust Bri and Kelsey more than anyone. We don’t always agree but, on the days when we’re assaulted by an unhappy client or flying monkeys, there’s no one else I want by my side.

4. You prefer a low-key (lazy?) management style.

I love to lead, hate to manage. In 20 years as an entrepreneur, I’ve hired a lot of freelancers to take on tasks I didn’t have the skills or time to handle. I’m choosy about whom I take on, even for a week, and I have few complaints about anyone’s talent or timeliness.

But, oh the neediness! The incessant questions! The pathetic demands for handholding and reassurance!!

I am an unabashed, enthusiastic cheerleader. I’ll applaud anyone who works for me every step of the day. But, if you want to work for a whip-cracking micro-manager and clock-watcher, I am not the boss for you. If KOTAW grows large enough to need a super-sized staff, I’ll hire someone to manage it.

I have been incredibly fortunate to find a few mega-talented freelancers who can take an idea or a request and run with it, people whose emails I can’t wait to open because I know they will delight, amuse or inspire me. What do I do with these take-charge creative talents? When I’m really lucky, I add them to the KOTAW roster! (and thank you, Toni Bullo and Francesco Cinolli for bringing your creative genius and incredible spirits to the team) When their interests lie elsewhere, I do everything possible to show my thankfulness (Elizabeth Poff, you’re at the top of my Gratitude List, and I pray you understand the depth of my appreciation.)

I don’t know what Bri and Kelsey are doing half the time – even if they’re working five feet away with me – and it makes me giddy to never, EVER have to wonder or worry. The results are never less than I imagined and far, far more than I could have dictated.

Their brilliance and independence free me to do what I do best. What more could a CEO (or mom) hope for?

3. No one outside your family is more qualified.

If you’re a new, small business, you can easily go bankrupt by making poor hiring choices.

KOTAW suffered some catastrophic website issues in its first year as a Los Angeles storytelling and content marketing agency because I didn’t know enough about developing and hosting to hire the right people or evaluate their work – until disaster struck. (This seems to be a fairly common problem, judging from the number of KOTAW clients who are being held hostage by their web team).

Thanks to social media connections – and I mean THANKS – I’ve been able to solve most crises quickly and quietly.

But the key to preventing serious problems is including on your staff people who are smarter than you are.

A lot of people are smarter than me, but no one is smarter for KOTAW than Bri and Kelsey. Yes, they have high IQs. But, more important, they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge for anything and everything that will benefit our company. Kelsey taught herself enough coding in one night to fix a glaring visual problem on our homepage, and Bri spends part of every day studying the technical side of social media and digital marketing trends.

They tackle the kinds of things that are more likely to render me unconscious than a field of poppies. I can tell – and sell – brand stories. But KOTAW wouldn’t make nearly as much branding magic if it weren’t for my daughters.

A Wicked Witch and Brand Storytelling: 10 KOTAWesome Reasons to Travel With Family to the Land of Oz (and Business Success) | KOTAW Content Marketing2. You want to leave a legacy.

I want my accomplishments to be more than the sum of my work. It’s satisfying when clients praise me, ego-boosting when my efforts surpass expectations and humbling when someone I admire sends me kudos.

But I don’t want my work to end at the final period. I am a woman of words, and I want them to matter. I want to make relationships safer for women and life happier for pit bulls. I want to inspire more women to leave their abusers and convince more people to adopt a pit bull.

Bri and Kelsey make it possible for me to pursue these goals because they believe in them. They share more than my dark hair, fair skin, upturned nose and sense of humor. They share my passions, my commitment to making a difference.

Building a business is hard. Building a legacy is extraordinarily difficult.

My daughters make both possible.

1. You want to work with your best friends.

Are you surprised to find this at the top of my list? Well, you shouldn’t be.

None of us can predict the future. As much as I envision a bright, hugely profitable and immensely gratifying success for KOTAW, the Wicked Witch of the West didn’t leave me a crystal ball in her will.

The best I can do is make the best of each day.

So I still measure success in much the same way I did 20 years ago – in laughs, hugs and shared adventures.

And wherever the Yellow Brick Road takes me, I want to travel it with my daughters.

Comments

  1. No mom can pen a more beautiful tribute to her daughters – love you, my #KOTAWesome family.

    Bri and Kelsey – You have my CUSHIEST HUGSSSSSSSSSSs. Proud of you, humbled by you and rooting for you <3

    OODLES of love and hugs, Mama
    Kitto

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      With daughters as beautiful as mine, it’s easy to pen a tribute to them.

      I meant every word, just as I mean all the words I write to you.

      Love you Kitto,

      Mama Kat

  2. K. Lamb says:

    Excellent blog post, Katherine! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your relationship and business partnership with your daughters. Growing up in a family owned business I could relate to many of the comments you made. It is also why I opened my own business when my daughter was about to start school so I could make my own hours and be an active participant in her young life. Now, I am blessed enough to work with my daughter and husband on the Dani P. Mystery series. We (you and I) are both very fortunate to work with the ones we love—and yes—they will always tell you what they think even when it cuts you to the quick, but there is no one else that will have your back quite like they do when you need their support most!

    I am so profoundly happy that you found this joyful partnership. You deserve every bit of love & laughter that comes your way.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      I am SO happy we met and that we’ve found so many common bonds. I had no experience with family-owned businesses or entrepreneurship until I had my daughters and am beyond joyful for the experience.

      My life is full of so much love and laughter now that I don’t regret my past — just part of a truly wonderful journey.

      Thank you so much for reading my post and for stopping by here. You’ve made my evening!

      Hugs,

      K

  3. Brian J Wood says:

    Amazing post Katherine. Passing it on to our friends. You have an amazing life story full of passion and those who follow you are lucky. BRB calling a friend to tell him about your dynamite. That’s encouraging with a capital E I hope

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Katherine,
    I have been meaning to post a comment here for a while. I am so sorry I am late to the party, but I just wanted to say how much I loved this post! I also want to thank you for the mention above. It means so much to me. I feel so blessed to be able to work with you and your daughters. You ladies are just a ball of sunshine filled with so much passion, talent and energy — it’s totally contagious! And I love you for that. I am just so happy that you and your daughters have such a wonderful, honest working relationship. It really shows in all you do. HUGS!!

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Awww, Elizabeth, the party starts when you arrive! And you always bring a gift — your lovely radiance — so you can arrive any time! We are blessed to include you in our lives.

      HUGS,

      Katherine

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