Mary Pokluda has a framed photo of a personal hero of hers hanging in her office—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Now there’s a busy person. Were Pokluda to move her concierge business Bumblebee to Washington, D.C., one would imagine the justice being a client. It’s Bumblebee’s mission to take the stress out of the lives of busy people.
“Well, that would be a dream come true,” says the warm and high-energy Pokluda. “I just love her so much.”
One suspects she’s actually given it some thought. This is a business owner who feels deeply about her clients.
“A lot of them are friends. They were at my wedding. I have clients that have breakfast with me when I come in: We eat, we talk and then we get down to work. Or they’ll invite me to stay for dinner or have a glass of wine before I go home. I’m treated as a member of the family,” she says.
She’s treated like a member of a lot of families. She has around 250 clients right now, 25 to 30 on a weekly basis, and knows many of them personally. She started her business in 2007 after spending 16 years working in retail management.
“I do a lot of research, and there were a lot of people doing various things, like errand services, but nothing very comprehensive, so I just decided to jump right in,” she says. “My first job was walking dogs at $10 an hour.”
From there the business grew—slowly, and only after Pokluda put in a lot of time networking. A lot of time.
“All I did in those first years was network. I’d meet with 10 or 15 people a week, and learn about them and learn about business, and learn about what is going on in the Twin Cities. Business was coming in, but not to the extent that I thought, ‘OK, we’re set.’ But after two years of pretty solidly networking and building relationships I had a tipping point. My phone just started ringing with business,” she says.
It’s been pretty much ringing nonstop ever since. She started to expand her offerings and plans, adjusting price points as she went. What started as a fairly straightforward task-oriented model has turned into more of a professional services firm, offering plenty of flexibility.
“If you need a person to hand-sign thank-you notes, put a stamp on them and mail them, it’s not going to be someone who has a master’s degree in copywriting. We’re going to formulate a nice letter for you and send it out and it’s going to be a basic service. Or we could offer a ‘worker bee’ ”—her name for her employees—“who could do some graphic design on the note card. As the skills go up, the prices go up. We find clients that know that investing in their life is a benefit. And the ROI is time with their family and peace of mind and being stress-free,” she says.
One of those clients is Lisa Bormann, who works in human resources at General Mills and needed help planning her husband’s 40th birthday party. Bormann was impressed with Pokluda’s listening and organizational skills.
“She took the time to really figure out what I needed, and why I needed her help.
Started in 2007
First clients paid her $10 to walk dogs
8 employees, 19 subcontractors
Revenues not made public but expected to grow 200% this year
Errands - $60/hour
On-site - $60/hour, three-hour minimum
Planning/hosting services - $60-$75/hour, three-hour minimum
Day-of Coordination - $75-$125/hour, three-hour minimum
“She kept that first conversation in mind throughout the planning process. She really understood my goals, she kept helping me remember them. And then she worked up a timeline and asked for what she needed,” Bormann says.
Upshot: The party went off without a hitch. And Bormann has hired Bumblebee a second time. “It’s been a really great partnership.”
What’s staring Pokluda in the face now is growth prospects. She’s always been a hands-on entrepreneur and never relished the thought of handing off responsibilities and delegating. But her volume of business has put her in a position where scaling up seems the way to go. She’s hired a business coach in Buffie Blesi to walk her through this next stage.
“I’ve been helping her understand her real role in the organization,” Blesi says. “As CEO and president, it’s not to do all the work yourself, but to create good systems. She’s progressed dramatically in the last six months in that area. She has a drive to show people that she can do this, and I’m confident she can.”
Pokluda did have some interest from an investor group last year and she put in 300 hours to prepare the requested materials. But Dec. 31, she got the word she was being turned down. The stated reason: She is too emotional about her business, which the group perceived as a red flag for risk. Pokluda was disappointed but undeterred.
“When I got that news I said, ‘Fabulous, because it’s my passion and emotion that drives what I do and why I’m successful,’ ” she says. She’s not averse to taking on investors in the future, although she’d prefer to work with a woman investor, because a woman “will appreciate my spirit for the business.”
And for now, her energy continues unabated.
“If I find the right person to invest, great, but if not, all the ‘no’s’ are fuel for the fire,” she says.