A Small Business Owner in The Star City—An Interview with J.D. SutphinShare
If you’ve ever met J.D. Sutphin, you know that his enthusiasm lights up any room he enters. The local small business owner has been making a name for himself in Roanoke with his positive attitude, relentless hustle, and commitment to community. Member One has been focusing on small businesses this month, and we wanted to bring you a raw, honest interview from someone who’s in the trenches. Find out how J.D. balances life and work, what challenges he faces, and how tragedy led him to success.
For those who don’t know, what are your businesses?
JS: My business is Big Lick Entertainment, an events and marketing agency that we started in 2013. I also have my food truck, Fast Burger, which was actually started through Big Lick Entertainment as a physical promotional vehicle for our events. My other business is my country band, The Low Low Chariot, and we just recorded our album in Nashville.
Great! Which business did you start first?
JS: Big Lick Entertainment.
Okay, let’s start there. How did you get the idea for that?
JS: I had been in radio for over a decade. I was promotions and marketing director for six radio stations, on the air, a salesperson, assistant program director, music director, and syndicated in Richmond. I got to do a million things for a million different businesses, and I’d always thought about what it would be like to work for myself. After being there for a little over a decade, my cousin passed away. He was like my best friend and little brother. He was super positive and lived by the saying, “Positive thinking equals positive results.” It was really hard for me to get over his death to the point that I actually stopped being on the air because I felt like I was faking being happy. Fast forward several months, and a good friend of mine invited me to the City Works (X)po. It was on a Friday, and I still remember walking in there and listening to this guy from the Virginia Board of Tourism. He said, “If you’re asking yourself, ‘Why hasn’t anyone come to visit my town?’ Ask yourself when was the last time you visited theirs.” So I started thinking about how positive thinking equals positive results and about events I could do here in the area that could spread positivity. I quit my job on Monday.
How do you go about advertising your business?
JS: Well, I was lucky having the radio background because I knew the best way to advertise through radio was with a mixture of promotions and actual buys. We’re fortunate in this market that people still listen to terrestrial radio and watch local TV, and really good content is produced on all of those things. We still buy a lot of traditional media, but we wanted to expand our social media platform, so I now create a different Facebook page for every single event. That allows me to follow a completely different algorithm on Facebook for my advertising because I can collectively advertise through 41 Facebook pages instead of one. Because of our social media success, Big Lick actually runs Facebook pages for other companies as well.
So different companies will hire you to do this for them?
JS: Yeah. I figured if I’m running all these different pages for myself and I have a really cool recipe for attracting people and keeping them entertained, maybe I can offer that to someone else. We’ve done it for probably a dozen different businesses over the past few years.
Okay, so what’s a typical day like for you?
JS: I’m usually in the office for nine hours a day. We have a building in Old Southwest. When I arrive, I have two or three shots of espresso and get straight to my computer. It’s all email and social media for several hours, and before I know it, it’s lunchtime. Then I’m back in my office, and it’s meeting, meeting, meeting, meeting. You can look at my phone and see how many unanswered emails I have. I drive my wife crazy by checking my phone about 4,000 times a day with social media posts and follow-up emails.
SIDE NOTE: There were 12,145 emails on his phone!
As the face of Big Lick Entertainment, what are your partners’ roles?
JS: I’m the only one who does this full time, which can be tough. I’m solely responsible for every single sponsorship, permit, marketing, and ticket sold. My partners have different businesses and different points of view that offer a lot of great input. It’s neat because within the group of guys who have ownership in the company, we all just constantly want to bust our you-know-whats and have no problem spending the time to do it.
How has being an entrepreneur impacted your family life?
JS: Time mostly. It’s been really tough, but after my son was born, I realized that you should start making decisions based on your quality of life. If I can go home for lunch and see my son, that’s success to me; that means more to me than ticket sales. You have to balance that time and put the phone down.
How do you do that?
JS: There was a guy I met early on when I was working at Big Lick, and he told me to read a book called The Power of Why. I started to think about why Big Lick was started and began making business decisions that lined up with that. And hopefully, your patrons are then loyal to that same brand because they’re aware of it. But that’s really hard when you’re like, “Hey, I have a mortgage,” and someone is offering you money to do something!
What’s the best part about being self-employed?
JS: It’s the never-ending gratitude I feel. Seriously. Every time I go to the bank to make a deposit, I say a prayer. I can’t believe that I’m actually supporting myself. Even now, when I go and make a deposit, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, and I’m like, “I’m actually creating a living for myself.” It’s nuts.
What advice would you give to someone who either wants to start a business or is just starting out and may be struggling?
JS: You have to look at multiple revenue streams—different ways that you’re making money, even if it’s through the same skill base or product. For instance, we figured out that we could do social media for other people. If that pays the rent for our office, great! That’s a fixed expense that is now taken care of. You have to think about things that can get your overhead as absolutely low as possible. And don’t take on too many things at once. We took on way too many things in the beginning as a company because we didn’t want to say no to anything, and that was a problem. Streamline and figure out what you’re best at.
What was the toughest part about starting your own business?
JS: Managing my own expectations. I’m a total dreamer; the glass is always exceedingly half full and filled with Kool-Aid! It’s important to stay grounded. Taking constructive criticism is also a tough one. I can’t stand people being upset with me, but when you’re a business owner, you’re now someone’s competition. You just have to accept that and hope that there’s enough to go around for everybody.
What’s the most difficult part now that you’re in the thick of things?
JS: It’s honestly really fun right now, but I’d say I experience the same challenges as before. You can’t just rest on your laurels and wait for stuff to happen. I’m constantly thinking about what I can do next year to make the product bigger, better, and more enjoyable without charging anybody extra for it. I’m just continually challenging myself to be better.
In one word, characterize your life now as a small business owner.
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