Have you ever met someone who founded her own company, competes in Half Ironman races, mentors students, is an ambassador for Trek bicycles, and is a single mother? If you have, then her name is Meredith Rigdon. Meredith sat down with us for an in-depth look at her journey to creating her own company and still managing to find time to give back to the place she calls home and competes in a sport she loves.
“Identify your strengths and weaknesses, and know that all of the little steps along the way lead will lead you to your dream job.”
Sophisticated Professional: To get started, I would love to learn a little about your background, where are you from?
Meredith Rigdon: I grew up in Anderson County, SC in a town called Piedmont. I live in Greenville now. I am a true local. This area has become quite the tourism magnet. You’re starting to hear people ask “are you actually from Greenville?” When I was a kid, when people would ask where I was from, I would always say Greenville because most people had not heard of Piedmont or Anderson. I was a Wren high school graduate with a marketing degree from Clemson. I am a true Greenville and Clemson girl. When I first finished Clemson, my first job was in Charlotte and then I took some roles with other companies that sent me as far as Richmond, Virginia and Los Angeles for a little while. Then, I was more than happy to come back to Greenville about 10 years ago. So Greenville, South Carolina is what I call home for sure.
When you started at Clemson, what did you think you wanted to do?
Oddly, I actually started in pre-law at Clemson because I love to read and write. When I figured out I would have to argue with people (I’m not a very confrontational person), I realized that law was probably not for me. I had this friend’s dad at the time who told me I should get a marketing degree because I would be great at it. I was excited because I’ve always loved advertising. I also chose marketing because I thought I wouldn’t have to take very many math classes and anybody who works in marketing knows that is a total lie because clients always want to see data! So the joke’s on me!
Starting in law, and realizing marketing was more math than you originally realized, how were you sure that that is what you wanted to do, and how did you get your first job?
My family owned an insurance agency and I was the last grandchild that was supposed to take it over but I was pretty sure I wanted to work in marketing and wanted to make sure I didn’t have any regrets. I graduated from Clemson early and thought to myself, “I just turned twenty one, and I’ve got all the time in the world.” So, I moved to Charlotte on purpose to work for Nationwide (who is the company my family’s agency was with). I wanted to work for an insurance company away from my family to see if I actually liked it. Then, I knew on the first day on the job that I hated it. I immediately started trying to get a marketing job after that. What I realized very quickly was even though I had internships, I was not aware of the power of mentoring and the power of networking. So I was trying to do this all on my own and Clemson didn’t have a mentoring or networking program like the one they have now, known as Tiger Ties. Monster.com was big at the time and I landed a job with a company who builds those beautiful kitchens you see in multi-million dollar homes. They called me a “Marketing Representative,” but I was basically the girl that ran the show room. I did cooking demonstrations and I was supposed to work my way into a sales job. But, that never happened because a company came in and bought that distributor and they ended up eliminating my position. So then here I was not six months out of Clemson, and I did not have an insurance job or a marketing job. So I went back to the drawing board and tried to get a sales job. I was able to get one for a hiking and running footwear company which was a ton of fun and I became the marketing person for all of my customers. I would bring them the portfolio with the spring line and tell them what I thought their customers would buy and how I was going to help market their store. I worked mostly with independent shoe stores and boutiques. I also had a region of Nordstrom that I was responsible for which was an absolute ball! What I learned from my time at Nordstrom, I tried to take and teach to my customers. I did also later get offered the marketing job from the same shoe company but it was in Michigan, and if you grew up in Piedmont, South Carolina, there is no way you could live in Michigan! So I turned it down and went back to the drawing board and ended up with a sales job at Michelin.
You talk about Michelin, where you worked for a while in communications. Walk us through that process from Michelin to your time at Sealed Air, and what it took to get to the point you are today.
When I took the job at Michelin, I thought that I was going to come home to Greenville, but I did not. Michelin told me they love to hire Clemson graduates and they loved my background but I did not have enough experience for a marketing job. I asked what could I do, and they said to take the sales job, and that I could work my way into the marketing job. It was true, but it took five years to work into corporate marketing. I say that because I wouldn’t change a thing. If I could tell twenty-six-year-old Meredith it’s going to take five years I think she would have been like, “Oh heck no; I have to find a faster path!”
“If I could tell twenty-six-year-old Meredith it’s going to take five years I think she would have been like, Oh heck no; I have to find a faster path!”
But, I learned so much about how marketing serves the sales side of the organization, and much more. I think that is huge because marketing and sales do not always understand each other and if you do not understand the value of the two functions, both of them are going to fail. Therefore, I had a really interesting perspective by the time I finally made it into the marketing field. I had to become my own promoter to land that first marketing job at Michelin. At the time, I had been advocating for myself on my own because I discovered that if I found the right person to believe in me I could get the job I wanted.
“I had been advocating for myself on my own because I discovered that if I found the right person to believe in me, I could get THE job I wanted.”
A new marketing employee was assigned to ride with me when she started with the company, in order to see the sales side of the organization. When she rode with me, I picked her up and said “I don’t know you, and you have never met me, but, I’m Michelin’s best salesperson; But, I hate sales and I want to be in marketing!” She was confused at first but she eventually became my Michelin best friend and I would ask her if they needed sales participation on projects, ideas, or to know what the sales people are saying about the program. I eventually became the internal communications person, which meant I was the person that was the liaison between sales and marketing. It was incredible. It helped expose me to all of the marketing people which is something I was not getting as a salesperson. Eventually my self-proclaimed Michelin best friend was given responsibilities for Marketing for the Agricultural Product line. She had an opening for the Agriculture Communications Manager for North America. So even though I graduated in 2000, in 2009 I landed my first marketing job. It took me nine years with a Clemson marketing degree and internships to get my first marketing job. However, my first official marketing role was well worth the wait. In my new role I was able to do product launches, design advertising campaigns, and everything associated with marketing the product line to dealers and consumers. Agriculture was a smaller product line, and we had a very small budget. What happens when you have a small budget is you end up doing a lot. You can’t just hire agencies.
“What happens when you have a small budget is you end up doing a lot. You can’t just hire agencies.”
This ended up being a blessing because of the experience it provided me. Fast forward to a few years and I was recruited by Sealed Air to help build their Corporate Communications Department. The only reason I went to them was because even though I was super happy at Michelin and learning a ton, Sealed Air found me on LinkedIn and said they need someone of my technical marketing background working on a technical product who knows how to talk to the media. I was doing everything in my role in Michelin because I could not afford to pay an agency to do it. My experience was valuable to Sealed Air because I had done the work I would be overseeing an agency to do for them. Unfortunately, Sealed Air soon closed all of their offices and required everyone to move to the new corporate campus in Charlotte, North Carolina. I didn’t want to move so I had to make a decision.
So you are killing it in the corporate world, and then you decide to start your own business. Tell me about that thought process. What made you realize, yes this is what I want to do? How did you know this was the right time to do it?
At Sealed Air, I was giving an amazing relocation package and time to make the move but, I decided that I didn’t want to leave Greenville. So I had two mentors at the time from the Greenville chamber who I asked if I could take out to lunch and ask them questions. I asked them how to start my own business, and what would happen if I actually tried. They said to me “We don’t know, you tell us.” After that they gave me a few books to read, told me to go to the Secretary of State website and register my LLC, hire an accountant to make sure I was keeping track of all my money coming in and making sure I could report it and then just get ready. That will be three years ago in November. It’s funny when you look back. I graduated in 2000, had an almost 20 year marketing career, and every little step along the way was because of people helping me, and people making recommendations. Now, I’ve certainly had to continue to educate myself and expose myself to things, but I can tell you it’s about people. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, and know that all of the little steps along the way lead will lead you to your dream job.
“Whether it is a small company, or big company, marketing is very personal.”
So now you start your own business, and that first year is the riskiest. How did you manage that? How challenging was it to obtain your first clients, how did you manage payroll in those early months?
When you work for a big company like Michelin or Sealed Air, you get a salary and that check shows up no matter what happens. There’s a beautiful thing about salary and company provided benefits that you only really appreciate if you become an entrepreneur. You start to realize that you do not know all the questions until they show up for you. My very first client fell into my lap. I am a cyclist and a triathlete. During my time volunteering for a local non-profit, I met the Executive Director for the group bringing a pro cycling race to Greenville. He had virtually no budget to do the marketing and public relations for it and he happened to be in one of the meetings I was in. When we got outside he said, “You’re a cyclist and you understand marketing; and I need help.”I became an independent contractor representing the bike race, and it was great exposure. We had the biggest crowd on record for that race. It was incredible. In a community like Greenville that is so open to entrepreneurs, these small businesses get it. They know where you started, how you had to start and that you have to give everyone a chance. Everybody has a different path to where they want to be: Some people work for an agency, some people want to work at one job and never give it up, but if you want to be an entrepreneur there is so much value in working for other companies. See how they run, learn those lessons, and the luxury of letting someone else pay the bills while you get some business experience is great. I cannot imagine doing what I’m doing now, not having had a good 15 years business experience. There are no accidents, and everything was meant to be, but I don’t think 25 or 30 year old me would have been able to manage what I can manage now. I have an amazing accountant, who specializes in small businesses; because I’ve learned the hard way how to budget and how to manage finances. It was not something I ever had to do, as I am a true creative and numbers terrify me. But, when you are an entrepreneur, even if you own the biggest Ad Agency in New York, you still have to understand the financial position of your company. Which, is unfortunate for those of us who took marketing because we hate math!
Marketing agencies are a very competitive space. What would you say is your competitive advantage? Especially being a newer firm, how did you achieve success competing against more established firms?
Is the combination of where I grew up, working with Michelin, and the Clemson degree. Whether it is a small company, or a big company, marketing is very personal. Every agency, every consultant, they all have a style and they have a way about them, and you have to click with them. I’m big on storytelling and strategy. Some people just want flashy campaigns; Some people just want YouTube videos; Some people just want others to run their social media. I believe in emotional connection, and I can be competitive because I’m more nimble. Marketing goes back to what I said earlier: it is a very personal business. Marketing is a people business, and my relationship with my clients is as important as the quality of work I produce. If I can’t maintain my relationship with my clients, it won’t matter how good the stuff I’m writing is.
What is a day in the life like for the founder of a communications strategy firm in the upstate like? So you wake up in the morning, walk me through your day, and how that has changed since the Michelin or Sealed Air days, and how do you maintain to continue to do what you love?
It is 10 times harder. Let me be the bearer of bad news: I’m a single mom; I have two kids that are 10 and 5. I own this company, which is incredibly successful, and I’m very fortunate. I’m involved in the local Greenville community, I’m on two non-profit boards, I’m in the Leadership Greenville Programs, and I also compete in Half-IronMan triathlons. I have my first race on Sunday, and I am also a women’s ambassador for Trek Bicycle. I teach women how to ride and come into the sport. The easy answer to all of that is Google Calendar. I live and die by my Google Calendar. I schedule things when I know I have to call somebody in my Google calendar. When I know my little boy needs two number two pencils for tomorrow because they’re doing standardized testing, I put it on my Google Calendar at 7:45 a.m. so it pops up right before we leave for school. I’ve already written in my workouts since it is race week and I’m not going to miss my workouts!. My coaches are amazing and they keep tabs on me. If you surround yourself with professionals, you will be successful. I know what I’m not good at, so I have people who do those things. I’m not good at finances, and I cannot train without my coaches who are excellent at training me. You should get to know what you’re good at, and then you have to prioritize. I have a lot of energy and I love to work. On the triathlon side of it, it keeps me healthy and it gives me my mental space. A typical day for me starts when I get up at 5:30. This morning, I wrote a pitch, I got my kids up, got them to school, then at 8:05 a.m. I got in in the pool and completed my training for the day. Currently, I’m standing outside my office in downtown, and at 11 I have a pitch, then I’ve got three phone calls to make, have to dash home and let my dog out (who is like my third child), get my bike, take her to the Trek Store for one last tune-up before the race this weekend, and then sit at a Starbucks outside my daughter’s school. Then, I will pick her up, pick my son up, and we are home at roughly 5:30 when I will make dinner. I’ll make sure that when I get home from dinner until bedtime the computer is closed, and I am spending time with my kids. I’m not answering one phone call. I get them to bed around 8-8:30, and then I sit down and my computer comes back out. As an entrepreneur, it’s nonstop. At Michelin and Sealed Air, it does stretch outside those boundaries of a 9 to 5, but not like it does when you’re an entrepreneur. If you want to create your own business, it will be the hardest and most rewarding thing you ever do.
“If you want to create your own business, it will be the hardest and most rewarding thing you will ever do for sure.”
We noticed that your firm, Narrative Strategy Communications, specializes in the health and fitness area, which we know is near and dear to your heart. What is your favorite success story or project you have been a part of?
My favorite project is one that I have participated in but was not mine. What Trek Bicycle did when they started their women’s advocate campaign was amazing. They realized, which to me is brilliant marketing, that if you look at the running market and how women have come into to running, we could do that in cycling. If you look at it 30 years ago, women’s running was not what it is today. Now, it’s more women than men in running. So, what they realized was walking into a bike store as a woman was kind of like walking into a used car dealership. My marketing director at Michelin told me that we have to make an emotional connection, and if you make an emotional connection then you get loyalty, and not just any loyalty: true loyalty. You can spend a million dollars and run a Super Bowl campaign people might remember you until March. They might show you in the highlight reel, but what does it really do? You might sell a few beers, and that’s all good, but that emotional connection and understanding how to go past the campaign to create connections is what Trek is doing. In order to get women into cycling, which on the surface is a technical sport, is hard. So that was why they started The Advocate Program. This is my third year in it, and it is a one on one experience bringing one woman at a time into the store. Of course, I’m bringing them to Trek stores, but I don’t care what kind of bike they ride. I would love for them to buy a Trek, we all would, and we hope it’s an emotional connection and Trek is that first one they think about, but, to me, the sport is the greatest success story. You’re taking a technical product, and a potentially scary sport as a hobby and bringing women into it. To get to be a part of the leading edge of that gives me chills.
“You are always going to see me continuing to make sure Greenville is a better place than it was yesterday.”
You are currently at a job doing what you love and that fits closely with your charity work. Working at your dream job, how do you use that to stay motivated?
I stay motivated because I have to provide for my kids! There is competition everywhere. Every student sitting in class at Clemson right now is so smart. I mentor Clemson students through the Tiger Ties program. My mentees challenge me and make me want to go home and study! Kids are smart, and marketing is changing everyday. If you’re going to work in marketing, you better be ready to never stop learning. If you don’t keep up with it, your clients are moving on. It’s cut-throat. I guess my competitive side keeps me motivated. I’m competitive for my clients and with my clients because I want to see them win.
Who would you say are your biggest influences? Who or what was it that inspired you to do what you’re doing now and how big does fitness and wellness play a part in inspiring what you do in the business world?
There are a couple things that influence and inspire me. First, when I race and when I work, I’m doing it for my kids. I am just sold out for my kids and I want them to know just how awesome life is and that there are no limits on what they can accomplish if they believe in themselves. My aunt and uncle were probably the two biggest influences in my life. They are brother and sister and they were like the cool mom and dad because they’re not my parents. They always believed in me, but always pushed me and told me that I was better and that I could be better. The word “better” is the word that I hang onto a lot and sometimes I write down on my arm when I race. There has to be something outside of yourself that you believe in because if you’re working for money and making decisions for money that’s not going to last very long.
What should we expect to see next from you?
What’s next for me? I just had as many as five employees last year, and it took some of the fun out of the business. I realized that what I’m really good at is discovering stories and creating strategies. This year I’ve changed my approach and offering a bit. I’m the girl who you call when you have someone who can execute marketing, but you need that higher level thinker to come in and say: this is the story, this is where our market is, and this is how to reach them. You’re going to see me continue to race, you are going to see me qualifying for world championships again (because I did that last year), and the journey starts this coming Sunday in Florida. Most importantly, you’re going to see me continuing to make sure that Greenville is a better place than it was yesterday.
And finally, where can everyone find and follow you to keep up with your many endeavors?
You can keep up with me on Instagram @mererigdon79 ,where you can see some work stuff, some training stuff, and I’m totally obsessed with my silver lab! She’s my third kid, and she’s on there so please follow me I would love that! You can also see some Trek stuff when I take women out to ride as well.