For years, Catherine Downey, a single mother, took a go-slow approach to entrepreneurship so as not to shortchange her kids. Now that they're out in the world, she's thrown CATMEDIA, her $4.6 million media-production company, into overdrive, snagging big federal contracts from clients like the Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control.
My dad was an attorney with a small practice in Springfield, Virginia. My mom was from Iceland: strong, independent, outspoken--Viking all the way. We grew up on a farm. There were seven of us kids, and we’d fix fences, muck out the horse stalls, feed the chickens and goats, hay the fields. We were built-in farmhands.
I was hired by the soccer league Team America to do ticket sales. I had a lot of ideas for advertising, so they made me promotions director. I went on to do that for television stations in Memphis and Nashville. We put on a lot of theme weeks. "Lizards, Snakes and Worms Week." "Elvis Week." "Gladiator Week." At that time all the independent stations carried "Dance Fever" and "Putting on the Hits:" I staged live versions of both shows that would air either before or after the syndicated versions. It was so successful that Dick Clark's son asked me to put together a "How to Promote 'Putting on the Hits'" guide for other markets.
When I had my first child I was working 70 hours a week. I couldn't imagine doing that and raising a family. So I launched a small regional advertising agency in Memphis, representing companies like Jimmy Dean Foods. I switched to video production work and started getting federal jobs. Many were for the Federal Aviation Administration: for example, videos about GPS use in helicopters to save lives at a medical center or--at the time of the Atlanta Olympics--to deliver goods and services to a city in gridlock. I also did work for NASA.
I was divorced, with four kids to put through parochial and prep schools. But I also intended to be fully engaged with them: to have breakfast and dinner with them. To be there at 3 PM when they got out of school. To drive them to their extra-curriculars. There were lots of jobs I had to turn down because they would have involved too much travel. Everything was under the umbrella of being home as much as possible.
I decided to maintain the company's gross revenues until my youngest was in her junior year of high school. Then I started ramping things up so by the time she hit college in 2012 the company was going full stride. I started networking and traveling more, reaching out to federal agencies, asking clients who I should talk to, making my world as big as I could. That spring I won my first huge federal contract as a prime.
After the children left, I had to think things through. What do I really want? I came to the conclusion that I want to run a big company. I'm also working on a 501c3 to produce documentaries that shed light on social issues. I raised my children to make a positive impact on the world. I want these documentaries to do the same thing.
As told to Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.