Kelly Kussman on how heartbreak led to her create Cayla Gray, a company driven by helping others honor memories through fragrance

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Describe your business in a few words?

Cayla Gray is a luxury collection of clean fragrances.  We make memories tangible through scent.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I have always wanted to start my own business but as I moved up the corporate ladder over the last decade, it got harder and harder to leave the steady paycheck. In 2017 I suffered from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and along with my baby, almost lost my life. Same thing happened again in 2018.  It was after these two moments I realized that every moment we have is precious. I had a second chance to go after my dreams and knew I had to start my dream business. I named the company Cayla Gray because that was going to be the name of our first baby and to not only honor that heartbreak but also create a tangible way to turn moments into memories for others once I realized how incredibly precious they really were.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I have been in the retail business for over 17 years leading teams in several different areas like buying, project management, financial planning, sourcing and production.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I watched my father build a successful business and always knew I was meant to do the same. What I did not realize is that I could make an impact on people’s lives while doing so.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

My initial marketing plan was very organic. I spent a ton of time in networking groups and with local small businesses to get the word out about Cayla Gray. I also spent a ton of time in front of actual customers getting feedback. I wanted to be sure that the product that I was putting out into this world was something that people really loved and felt a connection to. Fragrance is so personal; I knew I needed to do it right. After this initial research, I knew that marketing was one area that I did not have a ton of experience in so I read a ton of books, listening to podcasts, taking courses and spent time networking with some professionals in the marketing area. This helped me understand next steps in my marketing journey now that I wanted to grow more than just locally.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

In the beginning of my business, I invested in a lot of people that were “experts” in their areas. I learned quickly to do your research and ask for referrals from current clients before investing in others to carry your vision to life. Not all of these investments paid off and I could have shifted those funds to other areas that would have given me a better return.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Launching a brand during 2020 with COVID impacts was extremely challenging but I pulled it off and was able to beat my launch sales plan. I think the community was really looking for small businesses to invest in knowing that there were so many struggling to stay open. I had so many supporters. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

My go to interview question is “What is the best advice you have ever been given”?  Based on the answer, I know whether or not we will be a good cultural fit for my company which is extremely important to me. I have worked for a few companies where they did not put a large emphasis on hiring for culture.  Lot of skills can be learned; cultural fit really isn’t one of them. And I ALWAYS ask for examples of work and referrals. 

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I literally launched my business during COVID-19 so it had many impacts, both positive and negative.  The small business community really banded together to lift and rise each other up. I will never forget those who helped me and will always be looking to pay it forward because of the great experiences I had with mentors and community during 2020. On the negative side, we had a lot of production delays which impacted a few of our product timing for launch but overall, we were actually able to launch earlier than expected!

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We are really focused on growth and visibility right now as we are a newly launched company. In the future, we are working on new product development, seasonal fragrances and luxury gifting offerings!

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Just ask for what you need and want. Ask the dumb question. Ask for help. People are so willing to step up and help new businesses. And if they say no, it’s not the right person or right opportunity for that stage in your career.  And that’s a blessing too.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I am still fairly new but what I learned pretty quickly was to hire out for the areas in your business that you do not have experience in or tasks that would take you a long time to implement. I knew that marketing was an area that I needed help in. I could spend hours and hours developing email funnels and managing social media but I quickly realized that managing those tasks myself would take so much of the time that I needed to be networking, strategizing and doing the things that really would move my business forward.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Spending time with my family and trying to keep things in perspective as much as possible. Days are long and can get overwhelming but when I take a step back and look at the big picture, I realize how far I have come and what beautiful things I already have in my life. A successful company is just icing on the cake.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I am someone who loves to work so to me, work and life are one in the same. I try to create balance in my life but it can be a struggle when you are building a business. I implemented what I call “slow down Sundays” to try and give myself a mental break and spend quality time with my family. I also try and take a moment throughout the day to just pause and reflect in the space I am in. We move through life so quickly that we don’t always pause to realize that the moments we are in are really beautiful. For example, just the other day, I took a pause in the middle of a hectic day and heard the sweetest laughter from my husband working in the next room. Like belly laughing. It made me start laughing. I would have missed that moment had I not stopped to just be present in it.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I have ADD and find it has been really beneficial to me as an entrepreneur.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

• Take a walk first thing in the morning to clear your head.

• Write down a list of daily tasks needing to be done.

• Pause a few times a day and just look around you and breathe it all in.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista means I am willing to continually evolve and help other women as they move through their own evolution.

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