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Karlyn Lothery, communications consultant, succeeded after sending out a wider signal

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:29 PM

"The King's Speech" is the story of an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue helping England's stammering monarch, King George VI, overcome his disability and lead the British Empire against the Nazis.

I have previously written about the importance of public speaking for businesspeople, but communications consultant Karlyn Lothery grabbed me with her own version of "The King's Speech" - what she called her "fear buster" episode.

Lothery met a women's college basketball coach who was accustomed to giving motivational talks before large audiences and fielding questions from the press. But she was ducking requests to host a webcast in which she would be interviewing some successful businesswomen.

"Her eyes started tearing when she just talked about it," said Lothery, 37, recalling her first lunch with the client about a year ago. "She said her body shut down when she was the one asking the questions."

A person's fear of public speaking or inability to communicate in small settings can cripple a career, and Lothery is trying to build a business around curing it. Two coaching sessions with the basketball coach - including breathing lessons, memorizing facts and rehearsals in front of a camera - and $4,500 later, the client was ready for prime time.

The 1995 Georgetown grad's nascent firm is far from a powerhouse: Lothery & Associates has one employee (guess who?) and will gross around $300,000 this year, she said.

Why am I writing about her?

Like most entrepreneurs, Lothery takes risks. She walked away from a $200,000-plus job with the U.S. Tennis Association to start her own business with $60,000 in the bank - and on the precipice of one of the worst economic downturns in history. She burned through her savings and even dipped into her 401(k) retirement nest egg (which I would never do).

It sounds repetitive, but coming up with an idea for a business and actually executing it are two very different things. "Doing it" is a lot harder than you think.

Lothery admits the mistakes she made starting out, such as assuming her relationships from the USTA and elsewhere would create a cascade of clients. They didn't. She limited her client pool to athletes. Too narrow.

She learned from both.

Lothery said her company is big for a black-owned firm. Her estimated $300,000 in revenue this year will put her in the upper echelon of black-owned enterprises. Only 1 percent of black-owned firms nationally in 2007 had revenues of $1 million or more, compared with 5 percent of all firms, Lothery said, citing a recent Census Bureau report.

Her rates range from $900 for a two-hour one-on-one to $4,000 for a half-day session with four people.

She also has a mentor, which is crucial to most entrepreneurs' success. Her father, Eugene Lothery, started as a production assistant on the set of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and went on to become a turnaround specialist fixing troubled stations around the country for CBS. She said her dad was the only black general manager of a commercial television station when he headed WCBS in New York in the 1980s.

"He is my walking business encyclopedia," she said.

She interned at Channel 9 in D.C. and at "Face the Nation" while studying marketing at Georgetown. Upon graduation, she started in Charleston, S.C., as a $17,000 reporter trainee for the local television station. She left two years later to become a weekend anchor in Augusta, Ga., where she did more reporting and got to cover the Masters golf tournament.

She didn't like the bloody stories of carnage and crime that went with local television coverage, so she wrote a letter in 2000 to the president of the Communications Center, a media training company in Washington. Drawing on her television experience, Lothery pitched herself as someone who could teach people how to talk on camera, create memorable sound bites and speak to public audiences.

"The bottom line in media training is helping people perform better in a media interview," Lothery said. "Most people forget to breathe. They start hyperventilating. They have spontaneous amnesia and forget what they are saying."

The USTA in New York hired her in 2004 to be its chief diversity officer. She left the association in October 2008 and returned to Washington to start Sports Talkers, teaching athletes how to deal with the media and improve their public image.

Within a month she got a contract with the University of Texas basketball team (she knows the coach), training players and others on how to handle postgame press interviews, speaking in public and working with social media. But cracking the college market proved harder than she thought. Many colleges had long-standing relationships with media consultants. It was also difficult convincing young athletes to learn how to spend time in front of a television camera.

"I overestimated the depth of the relationships I had made," Lothery said.

Focusing only on athletics didn't work, either.

"I did not diversify," she said. "I started too narrow."

When an agent for a basketball player with the Philadelphia 76ers asked for her help in preparing his client for a big television appearance, the player wouldn't cooperate.

"I realized it was much harder to turn leads into clients," Lothery said.

Then came an "aha" moment. Lothery broadened her client audience to include corporations, nonprofits and others associations. She formed Lothery & Associates a year ago and hit the cold-call circuit. She compiled lists of companies from books, newspapers and watching television. She called associates and acquaintances in various industries, asking for contact information for decision makers.

"I went on probably 20 information interviews where I ask people, 'Who do you know who does PR for corporations or media relations or [human resources] or professional development, and are you willing to make an introduction through e-mail,' " she said.

It's working.

Lothery has boosted revenue from around $30,000 in 2009 to 10 times that. She has three Washington companies on retainers that range from $40,000 to $160,000, and around five "one off" clients, including a James Madison University athlete whose mom is footing the bill so her son can have a career after college sports. (The lessons include cleaning up Facebook sites and behaving on Twitter).

Lothery is applying to get on the General Services Administration schedule, which is where federal agencies go to hire approved vendors. She has an office on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, expects to hire two employees this year, and is also holding down an adjunct teaching job at Georgetown in diversity and social responsibility.

Though she at first envisioned an athlete-centric media business, she now has a broader clientele.

"It reminds me of some advice my father gave me early on: 'The fact that you love doing something doesn't mean anything unless you can get somebody to pay you to do it.' "

I am off for a couple of weeks. Value Added will return soon. Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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