I was going to write how jealous I was that Pam Hurley will earn $400,000 this year from her solo business of teaching technical writing.
But as we chatted and I asked her about her background, she told me her mother, Norma, was murdered 38 years ago when she walked in on a robbery at a 7-Eleven store in North Carolina. Norma was 44 at the time. She would be 82 now.
The man who shot her, convicted double murderer Bobby E. Bowden, 64, of Fayetteville, N.C., is in the midst of a court fight that may set him free after 38 years in prison. The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled a few days ago that he had served his time under sentencing guidelines.
The news about her mother’s terrible tragedy gave me a new appreciation of Hurley, 55. The story came to be about a tenacious woman who scraped and fought to get an education and accomplish something. Now she owns a successful business and makes a lot more than most journalists I know.
She did it mostly without help from her father, who exited her life following her mother’s death.
“He lost his way,” she said.
So from the age of 17 on, which is how old she was when her mother died, Hurley essentially grew up without parents. I was still on an allowance at 17.
The tragedy might have redirected the life of someone else. But Hurley is nothing if not scrappy. She has been a college dropout, a travel agent, a waitress, a library worker.
She said she learned it from her mom, who sold Tupperware, gave art lessons and was a substitute teacher until she landed in real estate, where she showed a knack for sales.
“She was always doing something,” Hurley said.
Hurley followed suit. She married, gave birth to a son in 1984 and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
For the next few years, she worked as a teaching assistant in Wilmington, but the heavy load of classes and difficult commute took its toll.
“I was working my butt off for $18,000 a year,” she said. “I was teaching four classes, my son was 10 and I drove 31 / 2 hours for my PhD a couple of times a week.”
She decided to go into business for herself.
She focused on PPD, a giant worldwide pharmaceuticals company headquartered in Wilmington. She called. And called. And called.
One thing I have learned as a reporter is that persistence is everything. It’s the most important key to success. If you make 100 calls, a couple will get returned. Same with sales, same with job hunting. And Hurley gets that.
“I called anyone at PPD who would listen to me,” she said. “It was over the course of a year, and I was calling once a week. I’m very tenacious. You have to be. That old adage, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is true. You have to keep reminding people that you are around.”
She finally broke through at PPD when someone called her back and told her they needed help. She sent a 10-page proposal detailing what she could bring to the company, and received a contract that included teaching all new PPD employees to write internal documents.
She stayed four years.
She earned $36,000 from the gig, which came on top of her teaching at UNC-Wilmington.
Then she got a piece of advice that had a big impact on her.
“One of the women at PPD took me aside and said, ‘You aren’t charging enough. This is what you need to charge.’ ”
Almost immediately, Hurley’s daily rate rose from $500 to $2,000 a day.
Hurley now lives in the District’s Glover Park, where she earns a comfortable living running her one-woman company, called Hurley Write. The company has several big clients, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, EMC software, Dillard’s stores, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Stryker Orthopaedics.
Her husband is in sales, but Hurley’s son, who is now 29 and has a professional writing degree from Virginia Tech, is joining his mother’s business.
Hurley’s services don’t come cheap. She charges $6,500 to $7,500 a day to teach groups of 10 to 20 corporate employees how to write everything from an e-mail to a memo that crystallizes the progress of an engineering project.
“Engineers are a huge space for us,” she said.
The biggest demand for Hurley’s work comes from supervisors who find themselves spending too much time rewriting the reports handed in by their staffers.
“It’s a huge drain on personnel and results in lost time and resources,” Hurley said.
The biggest problem most people have when writing to their customers, bosses, or employees is that they don’t get to the point, she said.
“I don’t teach grammar,” she said. “I teach critical thinking. You always have to think about the point you are making. Whether you are writing a user manual, an engineering report or telling your boss what you accomplished on a trip, you have to remember what you are trying to accomplish. You are writing for the customer, not for the person next to you in the pod.”
She also earns income from teaching people how to make oral presentations. She spends a lot of time offering advice about speaking engagements that rely too much on PowerPoint, something known in presentation circles as “death by PowerPoint.”
“It’s where you put everything you know on PowerPoint, so instead of three bullet points per slide, it’s 10, 20 or 30. It’s called PowerPoint, not power prose.”
Hurley doesn’t have a big business compared to most of the ones I write about. But she has made a successful life for herself.
Even after she started Hurley Write, she fumbled a few times. There was a misspent $7,000 on a public relations consultant whose only advice was to tell her to write for industry periodicals to get attention.
“I blew that $7,000,” she said.
She now uses a company in Denver to send out online newsletters and advertises in trade journals and on Google.
When we were talking last week, she said she planned to put in some long hours the next day. September, she said, is going to be very busy.
“Not everything I tried worked out. But I tried,” she said. “This business is a success. I am not some loser.”