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When consultant Catherine Littell, ’08, advises entrepreneurs on how to refine their messaging and rise to the next level, she speaks with unusual authority —after all, she’s been there. In 2006, soon after she enrolled at Booth, two of Littell’s grandparents died unexpectedly in the same month. It was a traumatic experience and led to the founding of her own senior-care consulting firm, Care Concierge LLC.

Catherine Littell
Catherine Littell

“I saw this big gap in senior services and thought I could help fill that need,” she said. “But I was the queen of bad timing. I did my first round of fundraising in 2008 just as all the banks were collapsing. I ended up winding the business down, which was one of the most difficult business decisions I’ve ever had to make.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but that adversity would later prove to be invaluable. It gave her a close-up view of the stresses and turning points that entrepreneurs experience and the hard-earned wisdom that she would draw upon when she began a new career in 2016 as a consultant specializing in marketing and financial issues, often for clients running their own startups. In between, she spent time in the corporate world in marketing and technology, including at Starwood Hotels & Resorts and DVD rental company Redbox.

“It’s so easy just to dictate to people and tell them what you think they should do,” she said. “It’s another thing entirely when you can say, ‘Here’s what I went through,’ and then back it up with real-world experience.”

Today, Littell serves as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing. In her role, she helps student teams fine-tune their presentations for the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge and the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge.

“I love the passion entrepreneurs come in with,” she said. “They’re scrappy people who are willing to take chances to figure out how to do something differently and make it work. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Littell recently sat down with Chicago Booth Magazine to share her multipoint approach to launching a business in the digital age:

1. Know your customer. “It’s the most important topic I discuss with my clients. There are a lot of great ideas out there. But can you take that idea and create a product for the right customer at the right time? People think that marketing is this magical thing where if you create a really cool message or advertisement, you’ll suddenly be able to sell a thousand widgets. But it’s so much more complex than that.”

2. Hone your message. “It’s really about understanding your customer and creating an authentic experience. What is the ‘pain point’ you are trying to solve? Is it so succinct and clear that anyone can understand it? How will you identify yourself as an expert?”

3. Let the data speak. “Do the research. Get some benchmarks. What are other companies spending? Which channels are working and which are declining? What features and product lines are most profitable? Ultimately, data will tell you whatever you want it to, good or bad, so make sure you use it to inform rather than just to affirm your decisions.”

4. Run the numbers. “When I was at Starwood, my closest ally at every hotel was the revenue director and that was because he or she was the one who knew the numbers. The Starwood revenue directors could talk about things such as troughs in demand and the difference between weekday and weekend customers. Yes, starting a business is about gut feelings, but knowing the numbers can help you figure out whether or not a business is profitable or can be profitable.”

5. Be comfortable with change. “Very few startups get everything right on the first try, and most don’t have the budget or time to vet everything the way established businesses generally like to vet them. You’ve got to be able to trust your gut and say, ‘If it works, great, and if it doesn’t, let’s change tactics and move forward.’”

6. Hire the right team. “You can teach skills, but you can’t teach attitude. If you find people who have drive and passion, plus they love your product and can define what you do and stand for, that’s really powerful."