Dawn Kamerling is the founder of the Press House, a public relations firm that specializes in lifestyle, music and culture. Here, Kamerling tells the story of the hardest year in both her personal and professional life--and how she overcame it. --As told to James Ledbetter
I come from two musician parents. Stevie Wonder was at my house when I was 7 years old. I always grew up around music. So around 22, 23 years old, I called up a radio promotion firm in Boston.
I had no experience, but I said, "Listen, I'm fearless and I am not afraid of rejection." And I was with them for only about eight months. I started my own thing in 2001. I was in the music scene, I was out seeing music every night, just talking to people. My best friend had a boyfriend who was in a band called Pennywheel. And I said, let me do your publicity for like 400 bucks. And I got them a piece of press.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, there's no business plan. You're just going as you go. I really started to feel success in the company when I moved it to New York in 2004. I was lucky I had stars like Lori Mckenna and Josh Ritter, and they were also up and coming in their careers. Then I have an office in Nashville, and I have a person in L.A., and then I have 30 clients, and everyone's happy. Every day I would wake up, and I would have this sense that the business was actually bigger than even what I was able to control or be a part of, which was exciting. We started to take on clients who were a little outside the artist box or the music box.
In December 2016, my mother started to get sick, and it was at the height of my career. She wouldn't go to the doctor. She goes to the hospital, she falls down. I was advocating for her health and trying to make sure she was getting the best care. So finally she gets out of the hospital around April, May, and for the next year, she was just never really herself again. And then there was a lot of secondary stuff that was happening: bedsores and infections and lungs. I was worried the whole time.
I'm still running the business. I'm a mother. And I'm a daughter. It was weird for me, because I had never made a business decision without talking to her. I was very on top of things for the first few months, and then I was less on top of things. I noticed I started making some mistakes, like I thought a client owed us more money because I misread the check.
I told the person who was in charge of my Nashville office about it when it was just at the end. She was an intern with me eight years before. She never had another job. My biggest flaw as a boss is that I have too much empathy. I remember having a conversation with her where I was like, "You've been with me a long time, and I'm telling you right now, I'm not myself. I need backup here, cause I don't trust myself right now. I don't know what I don't know. You got to tell me how the team's doing."
My biggest team at that point was in Nashville. My mom passed away at the end of August. So in September I said, listen, I've really got to take a minute and go grieve. I'm going to do work every day. But I'm going to travel, and I'm going to do some stuff for myself, and I'm going to take some time.
Literally three weeks, it's not like I was gone for three months. And there was a shift that happened where I could tell that, instead of calling me to let me know that the team was unhappy, or somebody was saying something or something was going on, she was protecting them, and she was not telling me what was happening.
I think that the minute she started wondering why she was working this hard and running the show for someone else, she began thinking, "I could probably do this myself."
And then all of a sudden she was like, "I'm having the meeting with the staff," and I'm like, what's going on? I'll never forget that weekend, because I went away with my partner to like have two days alone before we were going to be surrounded with people forever. And I couldn't do anything but cry. That whole weekend was just grief, which was really why I was there.
She called me, and I could just tell intuitively she was different. She was like, "Everybody feels like this company is the wild west, the company's sinking." I said, "No, actually we're like nailing it in 2018--numbers wise, client wise, perception wise, progress wise. The only thing that's missing is me being on you every day."
And then for the next six weeks, we fought back and forth about her leaving. I said, "You're not taking my clients." She said, "Those are my clients." And I was like, "No, they're not." By the beginning of December, she left with two-thirds of my roster--half of the overall business.
I'm not saying I was the perfect boss. I never meant to be a boss. I meant to be an entrepreneur. I learned to be a boss as I went, and I'm not perfect, but I'm always willing to grow and learn.
I'm grieving at this point, and this hurt. It's the biggest thing that has ever happened to me in my business, and I couldn't call my mother, I had no floor. Getting out of bed on some days was the hardest thing, honestly. But not only did I have to get out of bed, I had to get on a plane. I thought, this is my baby, I've built this. I'm not letting her take this.
The first thing that I had to deal with was my own insecurity that somehow I didn't have a value in Nashville without her. And then when I realized that that was not true, I saw the strength of my own brand down there.
I went to Nashville several times a month, and I've got clients again, and I knew what new ones and old ones that I had lost pre-her, like big ones that I went back and met with. Some of these clients that I was fighting her for were like, "You're a company, she's a person." You can't touch my brand, and you're never going to be 20 years' experience over me.
It was the hardest year of my life. But I like the level of strength I saw in my own self. The great news is I hired a new PR director in Nashville. She's incredible, and I will never take my eyes off of my business that way again.