As women, success is defined as being an engaged mother or as having a prosperous career. In these changing times, more and more women are striving to push past the boundaries set by society and personalize their own versions of success. Audrey Hyams Romoff from OverCat Communications emulates these varieties of success and inspires to look at womanhood from a bird’s eye view. I got the chance to speak with her about her experiences as a mother, an entrepreneur, and most importantly, an ambitious individual with an appetite for more.
Why did you decide to create your own communications firm and why the name OverCat?
I had worked for other big companies and I just wanted to do it on my own. I have good industry contacts and I think I have a different way I want to execute things that would ultimately be more successful. OverCat is the exact opposite of the word “underdog”. My husband suggested it to me and I thought it was really fitting.
In your interview with Love, Mom you spoke a great deal about your experiences with working and building a family. I admire that you recognized the importance of “checking oneself” in hard times and asking for help. What were some defining challenges that you faced throughout your journey? How did you overcome them? What are some of your biggest achievements?
You don’t really realize how life-consuming running your own business will be, there is no ability to detach from it. If there is an ability to detach from it, I’m not very good at it. It’s like the baby that you’re constantly worried about. Even if you’re taking the day off or taking the week off, you’re constantly attached.
In the beginning, if I wanted to go to what was going on, I would have to call the office. We had these answering services and I would be on vacation calling to see if something had blown up at the office. Now, for someone who wasn’t already obsessively attached to their business, having the tools to be obsessively attached to their business is sometimes a challenge. I know there are people who say they won’t look at work stuff after 6 PM, but one of the things we promise our clients is that we are always available. Problems don’t happen between 9:00 and 6:00. Sometimes they happen after that or on the weekend. Occasionally, I’ll think of something that’s a problem over the weekend, so I’m probably guilty of bothering our clients and my staff on the weekends too. I’ve had to learn as well to not drive everyone else crazy because I’m overly engaged in the business.
When I was working for a non for profit before I started PR where I worked in an office full of women. Maybe there was this subconscious patterning of what I was looking for with this company. I thought it was so impressive that all of these women were working together to achieve something, and that was always a goal and I think I achieved that. This is a tough industry, there’s a lot of pressure and I what I tell to the women who work here is that I can’t control what the outside pressure is, but I hope that internally we have an environment where we are happy, where we can vocalize and we have protection from all of the anxiety that’s being hoisted from the outside. I wanted to do good work and I wanted to have a good reputation, and a good environment where people would be happy.
How are you balancing your family and work life now?
My kids are grown up now. Now it’s actually shifting and I keep asking them to spend time with me! I have a problem with the word “balance”, I think that word should be eradicated from a working mother’s language. There’s another phrase in psychology “good enough”, where everything doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be good enough. My work-life balance now is no better now than it was before because I’m still so focused on that. When you’re running a business, you’re running a business. The train doesn’t stop even if you want to get off for a day.
My daughter worked here for three years. She studied fashion merchandising in Montreal but she was raised in this industry. I would take my kids on the weekend to go put gift bags on the chairs. She must have been 6 at the time. The good thing about it is that she learned to be very organized and know all of the components that go into something. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think that was a great idea that my daughter worked at OverCat. I think people should go out and find their own thing especially so early on in their career. After three years, she wasn’t so sure that OverCat was for her and now the ironic thing is, she’s freelancing and doing the same type of work. The difference is that she’s doing it in her own vision, not mine.
Nowadays, many young women (myself included) are hesitant to start families because they believe it will hinder their career…do you have any advice for those women?
It’s a tough issue and I feel like my generation of women was very much on the cusp of “you can have it all”. What they don’t say is that you can have it all but there’s an incredible price to pay. You have to know what your threshold is and at the end of the day, you don’t know what you don’t know. When I got pregnant, I didn’t know I was going to have morning sickness for seven months. You pay a huge emotional and physical price to have it all. I understand when you talk about how it’s scary but I also think that women are very capable creatures. You have to build an environment that has to work for you. That being said, there’s no way that you won’t drown when you have a newborn. I didn’t have a lot of support around me and I even went to my first meeting four days after having my baby. I did a pitch while I was in labour. In those days, we looked at photography differently, it was all on a roll of film. I remember coming back from the hospital and being with the loop in bed, looking at hundreds of photos and choosing the best ones for a client. I was so focused on the business and so terrified of what you’re talking about (I’m not going to be relevant anymore, I’m going to be marginalized, I’m going to be replaced). There is no “good” solution. Maybe there were things that I could have done differently it would have been easier. For example, if I had been working at a company instead of having my own, I could have easily gone on maternity leave and I would have had an income.
As women we buy into the “I can do this” mindset. I really don’t like the “Supermom” thing but for a lot of women who are ambitious who want to accomplish something, there is this mindset that if they were able to succeed so much before getting pregnant, that they can succeed the same way after being pregnant. Well, you can’t succeed the same way now because you’re pregnant. You’re sick 24/7 throughout the entire pregnancy, you have a newborn, you’re never getting any sleep, you’re still running this business, you’re exhausted but you have to keep the wheel rolling.
I don’t know what I was thinking, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m proud that I accomplished it but I don’t think I would do it the same way if I had to filter to look back on it. Another thing I said in that article was that I never really felt present. When I was at the office, I was worried about what was going on with the kids, and when I was with the kids, I was worried about what was going on at the office. I guess that goes back to not being able to detach. The good thing about that is, that I have a mind that can juggle many balls in the air. To be a successful business owner, you need to be able to do that.
If there are women who are reading this who feel guilty about being a working mother, that I do not buy into at all. You’re not a responsible parent if you’re suffering; because you’re working all day, you feel guilty trying to make it to the meeting and to the assembly. Maybe there are some things that I missed out on but because I have my own business, I could drive my kids to school every day and I got to sit with them every morning and really talk to them. You have to be realistic about yourself and it’s hard because self-awareness is an elusive thing.
What are the next steps for yourself and OverCat?
Th industry is really evolving. I was trained in traditional media and the social media came in. The first evolution of everything was the blogger. Back then, we thought that blogging wouldn’t last and of course, it did. Now it’s very interesting, from a client’s perspective, it was a very different world. With magazines, because they have a set publishing time, you would work on a story and wait until the story came out. Now the expectation is if we start running an event at 9:00 AM, if I don’t have material that’s being posted at 9:15 AM, I’ve done something wrong. It’s such a different way of doing things. There’s something exhilarating about that too, you also have to change your thinking “what’s my strategy now to make sure that I’m getting all of this posting and that I’m answering the needs of the influencer on social media while still answering the needs of traditional media.
I want to write, that’s something I’ve been trying to do for a long time. Every time I take the time off to write, I’m always either too busy or too focused on the office. Setting up this Chat Room was really interesting too and getting into the whole video content thing. I am interested in looking at different ways for things to be leveraged.
Do you have any tips for entrepreneurs just starting out?
Make sure if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, that you’re okay with dedicating your entire life to this. I think people have different thresholds for how they want to live their lives. When people come in here for an interview and they’re at the final stage of their interview, I tell them that this is not a typical 9-5 job. Occasionally, they will have to be somewhere at 6:00 AM, and sometimes they will have to work until 11:00 PM. I respect if you don’t want that kind of lifestyle, but you need to know who you are and what you want. Of course, in the interview process, everyone says “No, I love that! I’m happy to work 24/7!”, and then they aren’t. I think that’s fine, but then I tell them they should perhaps work in a stable work environment where they can get controllable hours, a decent salary and peace of mind on the weekends. If you’re an entrepreneur, you want something else. You have a passion for something, you think you can make a difference in some way whether it’s developing something or a new path in the world but you have to be prepared to do that 24/7, and you have to be prepared to deal with the frustration when things don’t go well. You have to be fearless and you have to be aware of everything that’s going on around you. You can never know what you’re jumping into but you have to have this knowledge that you won’t necessarily be able to control everything that happens. If you really want something, don’t be discouraged and you can do it.
I went to a vocational counsellor early in my career and I said that I wanted to be in advertising or publishing. This woman basically told me that I’m not special enough to ever work in that field and I will never succeed. I remember thinking “you don’t know me and you don’t know what I can do”, and if you want to be an entrepreneur, that’s what you have to think of. At the beginning of your career, you have a list of tasks that you can tick off. When you reach a certain point in your career (well, at least I did), you absolutely cannot tick off the tasks at the end of the day and it becomes this rolling thunder review. You have to have the stomach for constantly being under stress and sometimes it’s fine, and sometimes you just want the world to stop but it keeps rolling.
My father gave me very good advice when I was working and I felt that I was doing a very good job and people weren’t noticing. He said, “just be a good worker, do good work and someone will notice”. That was the best advice I ever got. You have to be aware of what’s happening around you, but someone else succeeding is not to your detriment. You have to block that out as you have your own opportunities to succeed. If you feel intimidated and you don’t always know what you’re doing, you’re pulling people down. I had a bunch of jobs that I kept for a very short time because I was a restless, ambitious soul. If this job wasn’t the right fit, I skipped out of it. I had exposure to quite a few female bosses and they were the ones who looked at capable individuals and wanted to foster and mentor you, and there are the ones who were intimidated by you and did their best to hold you down. I did have a boss at one stage, and I actually ended up taking her job after a year. You have to be a little fearless, not cluelessly fearless where you’re just annoying, but when you want something you have to go after it.
How do you innovate without considering technology adoption? How would you innovate over a competitor?
You can’t innovate without technology, that’s really all there is. The two big innovations that we did was the Chat Room which is not necessarily technology based. We bring videographers and photographers into this room, which is why it’s painted a certain colour and why there’s a specific configuration of lighting and neutrality etc. So one of the issues with this industry was always been “how do you deliver imagery”.
At the beginning, what we did was look at rolls of film, chose the ones we wanted and reduced them to 8’x10’s and collated the packages and sent them out. We would put the images on CD’s, then there were USB’s and one outlet wanted it this way, another wanted it another way so it was harder to maintain consistency. This one time, I was away in Costa Rica with my family right before Christmas and I was getting all of these emails about sending different images to the client. It makes me crazy when I can’t answer those demands so I spoke to a couple of clients about having a downloadable portal on their website where people can download their photos in high resolution. At the time, virtually no one was doing this and it would take too much for the clients to invest into something like that so we decided to do it ourselves. After a tremendous amount of work, the Media Hub really answered a need in our industry. For us, it means that we are available to answer your needs but here’s this resource where every client’s image is on the Media Hub so they can download it.
One thing about this agency is that we have a real range of experience here. Sure, I personally have a lot of experience but other women who grew up with social media have a different experience than I do. It’s good to have everyone’s perspective because there’s a real tendency to just jump on every bandwagon blindly without assessing how it’s going to work. Strategy is what matters.