BY SARAH TALAAT
If there’s one thing Deb Gabor needs people to know about her it’s that she is compelled to brand.
“I live and breathe brands, ” Gabor says as she runs from her standing desk to her small white meeting table.
Gabor says that for people to understand how she got here, as founder of Austin’s Sol Marketing Concepts, Inc., it’s important for people to know the whole story.
After starting at AT&T and Bell Labs in the systems and technologies business in the 1990s she went to the spin-off Lucent Technologies and then US Robotics.
In 1998, Gabor needed a change. She accepted a job with Morgan Stanley, but before she started, her brother convinced her to come to Austin for a long weekend and to interview for a job in research at Intelliquest.
“I had left my home in Chicago shoveling snow off the roof of my house and came down here and spent a couple of days with my brother,” Gabor says. “I interviewed at this company, and I loved Austin, and it turned out I loved this company and they offered me a job.”
Gabor didn’t have to think twice. She left Chicago, and the Morgan Stanley job, and made Austin her home.
Her time at Intelliquest as managing director of syndicated brand research was focused on making the company’s brand research division valuable to brand managers and product managers.
“I loved the consulting aspect of it. My favorite part of the job was really being hands-on with clients and helping them make great decisions using all different types of data,” Gabor says.
After Intelliquest, Gabor went to Citigate Cunningham, a company with roots in technology public relations. She joined the ventures division and continued consulting.
Then came 2001 and, as Gabor says, “Technology hit the skids.”
Gabor was running an office here in Austin and one in San Francisco. Her client pool was at the firm was shrinking as the tech bubble burst.
She realized that there was a better way to do this.
“I literally woke up one morning and just sort of had an epiphany. I said, ‘This company bills me by the hour, sometimes for $300 by the hour… I wasn’t taking home nearly that much, and I wasn’t in a place where I could make decisions about really which clients I wanted to work with.’”
So Gabor started calling friends that she had met through business and telling them that she was thinking about going out on her own. She quietly secured a number of clients and quit her job.
“I just hung a shingle and started going out and consulting and billing by the hour,” Gabor says.
Brian Sharples, cofounder and CEO of HomeAway, Inc., was one of her first clients. Sharples was the entrepreneur-in-residence at Austin Ventures working on WVR Group—the unfocused predecessor to HomeAway.
“One of my first client assignments was to do a bunch of research to help them assess acquisitions,” Gabor says. “I kind of started [my] business on them.”
It’s at this point in the interview that Gabor gets even more energized.
“[Sol Marketing] has been built largely on personal relationships that I’ve built through business. I look at it as a tree that has many branches and sub-branches and leaves. I could take my business network and map it out and connect everybody to everybody else, probably with about two degrees [of separation],” Gabor says.
Gabor started Sol Marketing in 2003 and hired her first employee that same year. For the first seven years they doubled revenue every year.
“When I started this and didn’t have two cents to rub together, there came such a demand for what I do that it became a company very quickly. I never set out to build this,” Gabor says. “This is something that kind of snowballed out of the fact that I was providing this very unique type of support and a unique type of client service relationship that was making a difference to companies. It couldn’t not happen; it was inevitable.”
But, Gabor readily admits, her biggest issue is scalability. She loves what she does, but she knows she can’t be in every project at every step.
So Gabor broadened her horizons. She started going on vacations. She went on extended ski trips, learned to surf in Costa Rica and went on a yoga retreat. She had to go to let go—of the stress and of her desire to be involved in every decision.
She also joined Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) to connect with other CEOs and to learn from her new peers how to stay anchored in the midst of her chaotic life.
Gabor doesn’t want for new ideas. She’s currently working on her plan to help start-up companies through InvestorPitches.com, a side-project for Sol Marketing. Gabor also has a book on branding in production that’s due to come out later this year. Ever the brand marketer, she plans to promote the book by doing storytelling workshops and hands-on exercises.
“I think it’s bullsh*t when people say find what you love and go make a job out of it… that’s not the same as being an entrepreneur,” Gabor says. “For other entrepreneurs, if you are obsessed with something, and you can make a business out of it… then figure out how to get it done and do it.”