By Eric Taunton
The Birmingham Times
Holly Williams is a singer, songwriter and mother of three. She’s also an entrepreneur. On Thursday July 12, she shared her story and gave advice to others at the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama’s (EDPA) “imerge” event.
The “imerge” event recognizes and promotes successful entrepreneurs and their businesses in Birmingham, giving advice to other entrepreneurs as well. Henrique Dubugras, co-founder of the credit card company Brex, a credit card company and other entrepreneurs also spoke about the lessons they’ve learned in business.
Williams was born to two musicians in Cullman. She began following her parent’s path in music while growing up on the family farm about 40 miles north of Birmingham. “I started writing songs at a very young age, it was something that came very natural to me,” said Williams.
She began keeping a song folder when she was about seven. “I wrote lyrics and stories all the time and eventually after high school, I decided I wanted to be a songwriter,” said Williams.
Williams, who is now, 37, has been an entrepreneur for quite some time. When she started singing, she carried a backpack full of CDs for sale while driving across the country in her mother’s Suburban.
She was eventually signed to a record label and released three studio albums, including, “The Ones We Never Knew,” “Here with Me,” and “The Highway.”
Though success is a huge part of Williams’ story, so is heartache and struggle.
Williams and her sister were in a terrible car accident, shortly after she released her second album. Her sister had complications for several months after the accident. It was at that point, Williams came up with a plan B that led her to another career in business.
“I realized that I couldn’t just rely on the money that I made on the road, making $500-$800 a night, trying to pay for a small band and hotels,” Williams said.
Williams decided to take a break from music and open a women’s clothing store so she could be there for her sister.
“I always loved business, I would always play office as a little girl,” said Williams. “My mom loved to talk about numbers and budgets and I would always ask her about that kind of stuff.”
She spent a year and a half trying to get bank loans until she finally convinced her father to co-sign on a loan.
She opened H. Audrey in Nashville, Tenn. and faced several challenges, including plumbing problems on opening day, a misunderstanding of business procedures, and surviving the Great Recession in 2008.
Williams said the most important lesson learned as a business owner is the importance of teamwork.
“I learned that it’s good to have people to do certain tasks. It was hard for me, because I’ve always relied on myself,” she said. “I know that sounds bad, and it was hard for me to rely on other people to get the job done.”
Williams announced her plans to open one of her stores in Birmingham in 2019.
Like Williams, Henrique Dubugras set a path into business at an early age.
Dubugras is co-founder of Brex, a corporate credit card company based in the Silicon Valley of California. The Brazilian born entrepreneur discovered he was a natural coder when he created a version of a popular video game. He said he designed his own because he couldn’t afford the original version.
Dubugras made his version of the game public and it got so popular that he got in trouble via patent laws and was scolded by his mother. “My mom made me pull all of the cables out of my computer,” said Dubugras. “It was tough.”
When he was 16, Dubugras started pursuing business ventures. He sold two businesses before owning his current business.
“I knew this Brazilian dude that was super smart and a buddy of mine and myself decided to teach him how to code,” Dubugras said. “We went into business together and made a lot of money.”
A strong work ethic and high expectations for employees are some of the keys to success for Dubugras’ company.
“We expect our employees to have a fixer mindset,” said Dubugras. “What I mean by that is that we want you to be able to fix a problem without having to ask a supervisor every time. It also means that even if you’re at dinner and it’s 9 o’clock at night, if you’re called and there’s a problem, we expect you to be willing to fix it right away.”
The “imerge” event also included a panel discussion with successful Birmingham entrepreneurs including Bill Smith, CEO of Shipt, a grocery delivery service based in Birmingham; Shegun Otulana, CEO of TheraNest – a company that sells its practice management software to therapists, social workers, psychologists, and counselors; and Chad Trull, CEO of Hospicelink, a company that provides analysis and technology regarding hospice care.
At the conclusion of the event, the EDPA presented the Innovation Awards, recognizing the top innovators based in Alabama. Winners included: Dr. Karim Budhwani, Startup Executive of the Year; Miranda Bouldin Frost, Business Executive of the Year; and Buddy Palmer, Social Entrepreneur of the Year.