Ask Shama Kabani what she’s like as a person and she’ll tell you, "I’m an academic at heart." But keep talking to this bubbly, 27-year-old social media whiz, and you’ll quickly learn she’s something else at heart: a hustler, in the best sense of the word.
Kabani runs the Marketing Zen Group, a Dallas, Texas-based digital marketing and public relations firm she founded in 2009. This year Marketing Zen is on track for $2 million in revenue, she says.
To understand how she got there, it helps to know where she came from. About 18 years ago, Kabani moved from Bangalore, India, where she had been surrounded by family, to Dallas, where she became a latch-key kid in charge of her younger sister while her father drove a cab and her mother worked at a dry cleaning company. She excelled in school but knew that if she wanted to go to college, paying for it was up to her. So she applied for and won as many scholarships as she could--including ones many students don't bother applying for such as the Rotary Club and the Women’s Historical Society. In the end, these piecemeal contributions covered the entire cost of attending the University of Texas at Austin.
True to her generation, Kabani has been steeped in social media for years. She did her master’s thesis on Twitter and she’s an old hat at blogging. The only problem was, when she graduated in 2008, convinced her digital background would serve her well in "cutting-edge" consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain, she discovered the corporate world wasn’t quite ready to take social media seriously.
"I never counted on there being no industry," Kabani says. "They looked at me like I was crazy."
So she did what any savvy hustler would do: "I started my own thing," she says.
It started with $1,500 of her own money and an online marketing blog that offered how-to advice for small businesses. But she began to get more and more solicitations for advice and for speaking engagements--so many that she couldn’t handle everything herself. Just a few months into her consulting business, she assembled a team to help her. By the end of the year, she decided to turn the consulting business into a full-fledged digital agency that could implement the strategies that up until then she only had talked about. The decision paid off: Marketing Zen now counts among its clients Haggar Clothing Co. and the Dallas YMCA, and the company turns down more offers than it accepts. In 2012, Kabani accepted an award for one of Empact’s top 100 companies started by young entrepreneurs in a ceremony at the White House.
Typically, the way you build a digital marketing agency is to start at a large company, build up a rolodex of contacts, and then start your own firm by taking all of those contacts with you, says Aziz Gilani, a director at Mercury Fund, a VC firm in Houston. "Shama didn’t do that--she built the whole thing from scratch," he says. "Talk about confidence in yourself."
Each step of the way Kabani has been deliberate in her decision making. To establish her credibility in the field, she wrote The Zen of Social Media Marketing, which was one of the first comprehensive best-selling guides on the market. She’s never raised funding and has always fueled growth with the business’s revenue. ("We didn’t need it, and we wanted [growth] to be organic," she says, explaining why she’s turned down investors.) And she’s committed to running her 30-person team remotely: Employees are located in, among other places, Dallas, Austin, San Diego, Washington, DC--even Argentina. Not only does it keep the overhead low, but she likes the culture it fosters, where everyone is trusted to do their work without someone looking over their shoulder.
"We focus on bottom-line numbers, we have the oldest blog, we have the book. We’re still doing the stuff we did right when we started," she says. And Kabani is still doing the stuff that’s always helped her along the way: She’s busy building her personal brand alongside the business brand, through Web shows and speaking gigs--the next one will take her to the University of Switzerland.
In other words, she's busy hustling.
It's not uncommon now for Gilani to see Kabani's name show up on the boards of directors at many of the start-ups pitching his firm. "I don’t know where she came from, and the next thing I know she’s popping up everywhere," he says. "The speed with which she baked herself into this ecosystem--it blows me away."