Your Start-Up Business: Kelly Cutrone on Ignoring Bullshit
Some people are truly a force of nature, and just as a gentle breeze can eventually become a category five hurricane, all legends began from smaller origins.
This week, Kelly Cutrone, five-time entrepreneur, judge of America’s Next Top Model, owner of fashion PR juggernaut People’s Revolution, two-time best-selling author, and mom, about where her empire began, and how she built her first two businesses from scratch.
In Kelly’s best-selling book “If You Have To Cry, Go Outside,” she discusses how she “fell into” party promoting shortly after moving to New York city (with a small amount of money provided by her dad to help get her settled) and how the seeds for her music PR company were sown.
While some of her fundraising activities are not reproducible (Kelly used to be a bingo player, and read Tarot cards to shore up cash), Kelly shared with me her experience of being a complete novice with no PR experience to being one of the most recognized women in fashion and PR.
Karen: What was one of the best pieces of advice you were taught early on?
Kelly: I remember when I started working for Susan (Blond). I used to go into her office and she used to ask me what tasks I had on for the day, and I would read them to her. Then, she would ask me to put an “a”, “b,” or “c” next to each one to prioritize my day. (I was insulted at the time, but I still use that advice to this day.)
Karen: You talk a lot in your first book about how you had to fly by the seat of your pants and learn on the job a lot, but a lot of people fail when they start out this way. Do you think entrepreneurs are born, or made?
Kelly: There’s always going to be a difference between a cop and a bounty hunter. The bounty hunter has to get up in the morning, find the criminal, use their own car, use their own gas money, and use all their connections to catch the guy. A cop is going to be provided a uniform and a car. They both have the same job with the same expectations, but there’s two ways of getting the job done. Both sides need each other. Corporations need entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs need corporations. But it’s rare that an entrepreneur will ever be able to stay with a corporation for a long period of time, or a corporate type will be able to become an entrepreneur.
Karen: Serial entrepreneurs often talk about the thrill of starting new endeavors. When you started up People’s Revolution, after shuttering your first business, what was it like?
Kelly: When I came back around, I wasn’t planning on doing it again. I represented a used clothing store. I thought I was going to move [to India], so I was just trying to get some cash together. I didn’t think I wanted to do it any more.
Karen: So what did you do to get it back up and running?
Kelly: I got a call saying “The Wasteland in LA is looking for a publicist.” When I left (New York) I sold all of my Chanel dresses. I renounced all of it. I shaved my head, I chanted every day. I became a vegetarian. I lived on no money, and bought clothes from the Salvation Army. (I bought a lot of stuff, brought it into town, and then flipped it at places like the Wasteland. I also played bingo once in a while. It was kind of a nice lifestyle. Very free, no pressure.)
So, when they called about this gig, it was like everything was coming full circle. I kind of was insulted a bit, I didn’t really want to do it at first. So I told them: “my rate is $3000.00” I went to see them, and they had a really cool collection of vintage stuff. I said, “Why don’t we try it for three months?”
The next day, I got a phone call, and they said “We know this woman who wrote this book about Pucci, and she owns the world’s largest collection of Pucci and she wants to sell it.”
I always say, “I’m not smart, I just have a great antenna.” What helps me is just to be aware and have common sense. So, I called Shirley Kennedy at Wasteland and told her that we had this opportunity to purchase this amazing collection of Pucci. I pitched the fashion show. (This was before I was ever in fashion) and they bought the collection. I produced the fashion show, and that moment helped boost the resurgence of Pucci.
Karen: You got the business back up, and had big success. You turned your business into what we’ve seen on The Hills, The City, and other shows. Have you had bumps along the way?
Kelly: You always have bumps in the road, because the truth of the matter is that people always want more than what they want to pay for. In the depression (this most recent recession) we went from clients who were paying every 30 days to paying every 90 and 120 days. When that happens, it can kill your business. I’ve learned that if someone has missed two retainer payments, they’re gone.
I’m really strict about clients now. I have a lawyer who works in my office now. We have everything in writing. If a client doesn’t pay, we keep their merchandise. We didn’t have that in the beginning, and people ran up bills, and then called the cops to get their stuff back.
Karen: It seems as though you’ve had to be really adaptable to your circumstances. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs starting out?
Kelly: If you have your own business, you’re going to hit a lot of fences. You have to be the kind of person who won’t accept having a fence put in front of you. Society gives out a lot of messages, like “you’re not ladylike. You can’t do that. You’ll never get into Oxford.” We jut start to accept this. It’s all bullshit.
You have to do what you want. I don’t want to go to a dentist who hates being a dentist, but his whole family made him become one. I want to be around people who are doing what they love. Of course, you’re not going to love it all the time.