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.”
Faith (and) works
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 learned 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 ninety 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.”
Send in the Angels
Four years in, with DRT hitting its stride, Danielle had another big idea: technology assisted media monitoring. No other company in Jamaica or the Caribbean was offering this service, and one of her clients, all the way from Panama, was eager to find a media monitoring agency in the region. She began to do her research, spending the better part of a year looking for technology that could be tailored to the Jamaican and regional landscape, but could find nothing. Her father, an entrepreneur who had long worked in technology, helped her search, and he eventually found a solution—but it came with one big problem: a hefty price tag of US$250,000 to customise and roll out the service for use locally and regionally. Where was that money going to come from?
The banks were definitely not biting. “I went to my bank, no dice. I went to another bank I used to have an account with, they said I didn’t have any collateral. I have a business based on intellect and creative talent, and that’s not exactly collateral, so no one was offering me a loan,” she explained. “We had our financial statements together—audited statements, everything. I’m doing what they keep saying small business people don’t do, so why is nobody paying me attention?”
Sagicor Bank was her last stop, and there she finally found a champion. “They went to the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) on our behalf and actually got the loan, which was amazing. Sagicor really fought for us, and I’ll always feel indebted to them,” she said.
Although the DBJ was on board, she still had to find some form of collateral, and the loan was expensive when it came to repayment. “They had to get paid first, so that just ate through the cash. Any cheque that came in went to them first, so we were running out of working capital.”
Danielle was feeling the pinch, but still plugging away. At the same time, she was enrolled in a business course in Argentina, and someone there suggested she reach out to Sandra Glasgow, Co-FOunder and Manager of FirstAngelsJA, Jamaica’s first angel investor network, which had been established in mid-2014. Danielle made contact and told her story, and before long, DRT Communications was on its way to becoming the first company in the Caribbean to receive investment from a formal Angel Network.
But it was not an easy journey. “One day, I’m sitting with Sandra and I think I’m going in there big and boasty, with my business idea and my financial statements just ready—Shark Tank kinda thing, and she just ‘beat me up’—not in a bad way,” she laughed. She made the adjustments suggested, and met with Sandra a second time. “She said ‘Do your pitch.’ And she beat me up again, but she really walked me through it.”
After fine-tuning the pitch, it was time for the real thing that September. But how do you face a room of 18 people, including some of the biggest, most illustrious names in the regional business sphere? “On my way down to the presentation, I texted two of my girlfriends and one of their husbands to send me some Scriptures. I needed something to hold on to,” she recalled. One of those verses was Philippians 1:6—“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”—And I went in and just got into my groove. What I realise is that I spoke from my heart. I took my passion for what I was going to do into that room.”
Danielle believes there are several factors that made DRT Communications an attractive investment for the Angels: the business was already operational and earning revenue, and it was compliant. Her character and that of the existing directors also played a part, as they were ready and willing to take advice and direction from potential investors. And, of course, they saw the potential in the novel yet much needed media monitoring solution she had pitched. Once the deal was done, Danielle was able to retire the cash-draining DBJ loan and make room for more patient capital.
Since the investment, DRT has experienced nearly double growth in its human resources, as well as a 140 per cent increase in revenue. She is grateful for that infusion, but “the most valuable part of the investment is in terms of access to individuals who have a stake in your company, who have themselves grown businesses and expanded throughout the Caribbean. I am able to bounce ideas and concerns on the board and feel totally at ease,” she said. “We’re held to a higher level of accountability by having a board of directors in place that sets targets and pushes for a strategic and long-term outlook.”
An Eye To The Future
Having received angel investment and seen firsthand how it has helped her business revolutionise the local communications industry, Danielle is looking forward to the day when DRT can pay it forward. “This is one of my personal goals. It’s cliche, but true: small and medium-sized businesses and their growth is the lifeblood and engine of any developing country. Someone put down a ladder for me to climb. I want to be able to send it back down for others, too, and guide other women and men within and outside of my field to grow and develop thriving businesses. For each person we employ, we impact communities and the nation. That’s reason enough for me,” she explained.
She urges other entrepreneurs with startups that have an eye towards seeking angel investment to treat their businesses as if they were going to list on the Jamaica Stock Exchange from day one: “Develop reporting standards and growth plans. Be in a position at all times to show how your company has grown, and what the plans are. Always have good financial statements. And ensure you are fully compliant and have good corporate governance.”
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