Taking A Leap Of Faith: Former ESSENCE.com Editor, Nicole Marie Cato, On How She Launched Her Own Company

Nicole Marie Cato

Anyone who really knows me knows that one of my favorite movies of all time is Selena, and one of the most memorable scenes is when Selena makes a trip to the amusement park and decides to go bungee jumping. Just before taking the big leap, Selena finds herself frozen by fear. The bungee jump attendant notices and says to her, “Come on, the hardest part is letting go.”

Selena jumps.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “This has nothing to do with Nicole Marie Cato quitting her job at ESSENCE.com and starting her own company,” but that’s where you’d be wrong because it has everything to do with it. When it comes to chasing our dreams, we’re often paralyzed by the fear to fail.

“What if it doesn’t work out?”

“What if I fall flat on my face?”

“What if I’m not good enough?”

These sort of questions bombard our brains but do nothing except hold us back from reaching our full potential. More often than not, it isn’t until months (or years) later that we look back at our accomplishments and realize that the hardest part was letting go.

When Nicole decided to launch her company, Melton Digital, earlier this year – March 1st to be exact – she had no idea just how quickly her business would take off. In fact, the same week that Nicole kicked off Melton Digital, 33 people emailed her, inquiring about the company’s services. For those who don’t know, Melton Digital works to build websites for beauty and health companies so they can grow and thrive.

Was Nicole’s decision to leave her job to start her own company a risky one? Sure. Is it paying off? Absolutely! But, if Nicole had never taken that leap eight months ago, she would’ve missed out so many amazing opportunities like the time she stayed at this breath-taking hotel while on a work trip. It goes without saying that Nicole is living out her dreams.

Here, Nicole reveals exactly what inspired her to launch her own company, as well as some of the biggest challenges she’s faced so far.

A Royal Point of View: Before you landed a job in editorial, you worked in corporate America for five years. What sorts of things did you learn there that ended up serving you well when you finally landed that magazine job?

Nicole's workspace, where she runs her company, Melton Digital.
Nicole’s workspace, where she runs her company, Melton Digital.

Nicole: I think I learned a lot about protocol and communication with people – I think that was very helpful, whether it was just following up with someone via email or making sure that emails are answered and phone calls are answered. That was very much something I learned in corporate America that I’m grateful for today. I would say the second thing I learned was analytical skills so I learned how to use Microsoft Excel, how to do analytics on my numbers, crunching data, and making sure that things like that were in order. That has been helpful for me still to this day, so those are skills I definitely don’t take for granted from my corporate experience. I actually encourage students who are able to go into a corporate environment, even if it’s just for the first year or so out of college to do so. You can always get some valuable lessons and also the contacts – I’m still close with some of my mentors from my first internship in college, so that’s always very helpful. You need those skills, you need to be able to present yourself professionally, and that’s something I definitely learned in that environment.

A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give to recent college grads, particularly journalism majors, who are really struggling to find their first job?

Nicole: Keep looking. Start a blog. You can absolutely get so far with having a really nice website and they don’t cost anything to set up, except for maybe $12 for a domain name through GoDaddy.com. Make it pretty and just write. You have to keep writing because we all have a story to tell, and your unique story and the way you present it and the time you take to build your blog – employers will notice that.

A Royal Point of View: After enrolling in graduate school, you were offered an internship at ESSENCE.com, which eventually lead to a permanent job. What made you decide to leave a position that took so long for you to land?

Nicole: I knew that I did not want to live in New York. This is such a strong word, but I just hated New York City. After a while, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I loved living in the D.C. area – that’s where I went to college. And so I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna do it,” so to be honest, it was just New York City. I didn’t like the hustle and bustle. I was having a really hard time dating. I just – I hated it. I didn’t have any family there – I was just over it.

A Royal Point of View: For those people who might not know, would you mind telling everyone what you’re up to now? 

Nicole: Sure! I love, love, love my work. It’s just the highlight of my – well it’s not the highlight. My family and God is the highlight, but my job is definitely something that’s so, so, so fun and real for me every single day. It’s hard, but I love it. I build websites, so there are two pieces to what I do – well, I would say three pieces to what I do. I have to break it down. The first part is I build websites. You need a website? You call me and I help you set it up. The second part is advising bloggers on how to grow their beauty blog or working with brands on how to connect with bloggers, and also, building editorial programs for brands and things like that. The third part is I’m a social media designer, and so what that means is that I design strategies for beauty brands who want to connect with bloggers on social media, whether that’s Instagram videos, whether that’s ID Digital Strategy, ID artwork design – we design the whole social media plan.

A Royal Point of View: What inspired you to launch Melton Digital?

Nicole at this year's ESSENCE Festival.
Nicole at this year’s Essence Festival.

Nicole: Well, Melton Digital was always the plan to be completely honest. I started my company in 2012, so when I left in 2013, I was doing that on the side all along. And the demand was just so great. I mean, when I launched my company, I had 33 people email the first week and so the demand is there. Even now, I’m turning clients away – I can’t take any more clients until February. I’m really trying to bring on team members – you know with that, you have to set legal perimeters in place, financial perimeters in place. I mean, running a business is just so much from taxes to accounting. It is a lot. And I understand why a lot of people are afraid to take that leap because the truth of the matter is that you don’t know what you’re doing when you first start – you just don’t! You have no idea – every day I’m presented with something new and I’m like, “Oh, OK, I guess I’ve got to do that,” so I just call my attorney, call my accountant – I just figure it out, but Melton Digital was always the plan. I wanted something flexible, where I could work from home and where I could travel because my family is in Michigan, and I got tired of staying in the office to be honest.

A Royal Point of View: What’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith so far?

Nicole: The best part is being able to help people. I felt like when I was at ESSENCE.com and actually all of my career, I did a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I was working with huge beauty brands that wanted to be featured on ESSENCE.com. Most of them were large, established brands who could afford expensive publicists who could come to our office and push their products for them. But when you’re just starting your brand, or just starting your beauty blog, or just starting your hair salon – these are all clients of mine – you don’t have those resources, so it’s been really great to share what I learned when I was ESSENCE.com on how a brand gets to a level, where they land a placement in a major magazine.

Also, helping people connect on social media. I think a lot of people are intimidated by technology and intimidated by, “Oh my god, you mean I have to have an Instagram, I have to have a Facebook, I have to have a Twitter, I have to have a YouTube account, I have to have a Vine? I can’t do all this. I’m trying to get clients in my salon – I’m not trying to do all that.” And so I’m their virtual assistant – I take care of all that for them and help them present their business in the best light using social media and for me, it’s fun! It combines everything that I love. I love photography, I love social media, I love lighting, I love graphic design, I love making things pretty, I love beauty – and it’s been a dream come true.

A Royal Point of View: And what challenges have you faced?

Nicole: Oh my God. My number one challenge has been biting off more than I chew. Because the demand has been so great and I love it so much, I’ve been wanting to do this and this and this and this, but there’s power in staying small and keeping track of what you can do good and what you can do great. Do you know what I mean? Because everyone will want to work with you, especially being a Black female, I’ve attracted a lot of other Black females who don’t know a web designer or don’t know someone in the technology field who can help them with their website or their blog, so I’ve definitely been saying yes since I have such a big heart and I want to do so much for everybody. But then, I’m working seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and that wasn’t healthy at all. You get behind and then you also don’t have any room for – you don’t have any margins in your schedule, where you can accommodate when something goes wrong.

I was just approached by a major beauty brand earlier this week, and I don’t want to say the name, but you would absolutely recognize it, and I said no. I said, “I’m at capacity right now.” The plan is to hire – to put together a freelance team to help me with some of those things. I also have to turn down clients who are not in the beauty industry. What happens is that I’ve done things for non-beauty brands, and I didn’t love it as much. So that just goes back to saying no and not biting off more than you can chew.

The logo for Melton Digital.
The logo for Melton Digital.

A Royal Point of View: How do you plan on expanding and growing Melton Digital in the upcoming years?

Nicole: Well, I definitely want to stay small. I don’t ever want to have some big agency where the office is downtown somewhere – no. I would rather have a home-based business, where I can manage things, help people, and build a community of women that I care about, who can also be resources for each other in the digital space. You know like, “Hey, Nicole worked on my website last year, and here’s what I’ve been able to do with my website. Let me help someone who may just have gotten their website up and running.” I want it to be a community, so I absolutely want to stay small. It will always be run out of my house.

Wherever me and my husband move, we have to make sure there is a room for me to have a home office. That’s something that we’ve bargained already and have agreed to because I want to have kids – I want to have a lot of kids, so it will always have to be something, where I don’t have to compromise my time to – I don’t want to have to say, “Oh, I can’t make it to the softball game or whatever.” I want to be able to do work when I need to because I’m sure that as time goes on, things will only get crazier with me being a busy wife and mom. So I want to stay small and like I said, hire a group of freelancers who I can delegate things to, and that’s how we’ll grow.

A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about making a major career change?

Nicole: Pray and just do it. Don’t worry about not knowing enough, don’t worry about resources. When you take the leap, the resources, the people, the financial means will come. You have to make that step though because God won’t know – God won’t be able to provide those things and blessings for you until He can trust you to trust Him, so you have to take that step. So many things out of the blue just happened to me when I decided to start my company.

Melton Digital launched officially on March 1st and 33 people emailed me, but not only that – I had an opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with Cream of Nature, a huge haircare brand that’s sold in every CVS, Wal-Mart, and Rite Aid. That was very humbling for me because I was just a little, tiny person, and my first major client was this a national haircare brand. I’ve traveled with them, and I’m signed on to do another year with them. I feel that had I not set my mind to quitting my job and going for it, that opportunity would’ve been given to someone else. What will happen is going to happen, but you have to move forward, whether you have $5 or five minutes, you have to move forward. You have to just do what you can with what you have. That would be my first piece of advice.

My second piece of advice is a quote that I always say: “You can do it all, just not today.” Like I said, I wanted to do so much. I saw all this potential, and my clients were needing all these different things, and I said, “OK, Yes, I can do it!” And the reality was I could do it, whether it was taking photos of their beauty products, or whether it was designing graphic artwork for their Facebook pages. I can do all those things, but should I have been doing all those things? Probably not. That’s why delegating is so important and keeping your focus narrow when you start out is so important because you want to make sure you’re doing things great and not just doing them good.

You have trust to God and take that leap and once that happens, He’s like, “Oh, OK, now you’re ready my child. Here’s that client you always wanted to work with. Here’s that business grant that will help you pay your bills. Here’s that connection I’ve been waiting to introduce you to, but now you’re ready.” Just go for it.

Be sure to follow Melton Digital on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find Nicole on Twitter @NicoleMarieCato and on Instagram @nicolemariecato.

Sesi’s Editor-in-Chief, Andréa Butler, On Starting and Growing a Print Magazine in Today’s Digital World

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As a teenager, wordsmith Andréa Butler was (and still is) obsessed with magazines but never felt that any of them catered to the needs and interests of young Black girls such as herself. According to the former high school English teacher, Essence was “too old” and magazines, such as Seventeen and Teen Vogue lacked diversity. Tired of flipping through the pages of magazines she couldn’t relate to, Andréa decided to take matters into her own hands back in 2009 with the launch of Sesi Magazine.

Sesi, which means “sister” in the Sotho language of South Africa, is a quarterly print magazine dedicated to “today’s eclectic Black teenage girl.” It’s a place where Black girls can go to feel celebrated to the absolute fullest. Since its inception, many popular musicians and actors/actresses have graced the cover, including OMG Girlz, Mindless Behavior, Keke Palmer, and now Imani Hakim. Here, Andréa reveals how she was able to successfully launch a print magazine in a technology-driven world.

A Royal Point of View: We keep hearing that journalism is dead, especially print, so I’m curious to know what inspired you to launch your own publication in this day in age?

Andréa: I actually got the idea when I was 17 because I was obsessed with magazines, and I would always look through them and wonder, “Why isn’t there anyone who looks like me on the cover? And why don’t they address issues that I’m going through?” I thought, “Well, if nothing changes by the time I’m out of school, then I’ll start one,” but I kind of went around that and taught high school English for five years [after completing graduate school]. Then I decided I really wanted to do the magazine, so I initially launched it in 2009 while I was still teaching.  Then I got a new job as an editor at LivingSocial.com, so I put the magazine on the back-burner. But I kept getting called back to do the magazine and knew this is really what I wanted to do, so I relaunched it in December 2012 but was still working at LivingSocial.com full time. I didn’t start doing the magazine full time until January 2014.

I decided to do print because our audience is Black teen girls from ages 13-19, generally speaking. A lot of teen girls don’t have access to iPads on a regular basis. Also, magazines are such a different animal than newspapers. Still today, teenagers like to rip out the pages of their favorite ads or rip out a page of a cute guy to hang on their wall. They still do that. You can’t fold up an iPad and sneak it in your locker or stick it under a textbook, which I’m not advising people to do [laughs], but you can’t do that. It’s just a tactile experience that you have to have with a magazine. It’s so different from any other type of media.

KeKe Palmer on the cover of Sesi's spring 2010 issue.

A Royal Point of View: What were some of the steps you went through to ensure the success of Sesi?

Andréa: After college, I went to graduate school. In college, I studied English and in graduate school, I studied magazine journalism. That’s where I learned more about the business of magazines because all I knew was I liked to read them [laughs]. As my master’s project, instead of writing a thesis, I did a business plan for a new magazine and I did it for Sesi. And I did a prototype with it as well. When I started, I was using [a content publishing service] and I just did not like the paper that they use. It didn’t feel right. It felt more like a homemade project, so when I relaunched it, I met with a local printer. I knew it would be more expensive, but I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right!” So I met with the local printer, got to feel the paper and take a tour of the place. And it feels like a real magazine now.

What I did next with the relaunch anyway, was get one of my friends from high school do the layout. She actually got her degree in graphic design and she’s working on her master’s in magazine design. And she does it all on a volunteer basis since our budget is tight. Then I posted ads on ed2010.com and Twitter asking for freelancers. And when I left LivingSocial.com, I asked some of the freelancers if they wanted to come with me, so finding writers wasn’t difficult. As for the celebrities on the cover, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just said, “You know what? I’m going to email the publicist. What do I have to lose?'” And so, they wrote me back and I was able to get KeKe Palmer on the second issue ever. You just have to take chances and do your research. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also really fun and a lot of trial and error.

A Royal Point of View: What was the biggest obstacle you faced along the way?

Andréa: I would say the biggest obstacle is selling ad space. It’s really difficult. In the beginning, I was trying to sell ads, but nothing was happening for a year and a half. Recently, I just sold two ads — well, technically, three because one is running in two issues, so it’s starting to happen. All the nos are starting to become,”Oh yes!” And I’m having more meetings with potential advertisers. It takes a lot of patience.

A Royal Point of View: Many publications these days come and go. What do you think has been the secret to sticking around for this long?

Andréa: I don’t know. I would say hard work and faith because there are times when I’m like, “I don’t even know how we’re keeping this going” because it’s very hard. There’s also been times when I call my friends and my mom and just cry. I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” But they’re so encouraging and they tell me, “Andréa, this is what you’re supposed to do.” I pray a lot as well.

A Royal Point of View: Talk to us about why it was so important for you to create a publication that represented and celebrated Black girls.

Andréa: Like I said, when I was younger, I was obsessed with magazines. I subscribed to Seventeen, YM, Teen Vogue and Teen People and it was just the same people on the cover all the time. It’s still like that today. All the teen magazines that are out today — the mainstream ones, their mission statement specifically claims that they’re for all girls, but when you look at the magazine, they are clearly for White girls. That’s who their audience is. I didn’t like that they claimed they’re all inconclusive, when they’re really not.

There’s also Essence for older, Black women and we have BET, TV One, Radio One and all that, but we need a magazine for Black girls as well because they need to see themselves on the cover. They need to see their beauty, hair, fashion sense, music and movies celebrated. We published an article about color complex in our fall issue last year and we also talked about racial profiling — you’re not going to see that in Seventeen. People equate mainstream with White and that’s why our slogan is, “We’re covering the Black girl’s mainstream.”

Mindless Behavior covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: As of now, Sesi is a print magazine, but it’s sold exclusively online. Do you think you’ll eventually sell it in stores?

Andréa: Even harder than getting ad space is getting into stores. You can’t just go to a store and say, “Hey, sell my magazine.” You have to go through distributors and the distributors have to think you’re worth it. They’re very subjective. I’ve reached out to many distributors and they’ve said to me, “Oh, we don’t think that you’re magazine can make us money right now.” Until I can get into stores, I’m focusing on selling it online. It’s just like any other magazine, where you can order it and have shipped directly to your home. I know its going to take a while, but we are looking into getting into some of the local stores and we’re actually in several school libraries and public libraries already.

A Royal Point of View: What entrepreneurial advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Andréa: Do your research — that’s very important. Study your competition, study your market and make sure there is a market out there that isn’t being covered. You want to find a niche because you’ll have so much competition already, so you really want to find something that you’re filling a void for. It’s a lot of trial and error, but definitely read books on starting your own magazine just to give you some type of structure. Build a team. If you can do it all, that’s great, but I’ve found that I’m not that great with the design aspect, so it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. And if you have money, that’s great, but if you don’t, you might want to keep your day job for a while.

A Royal Point of View: What tips and pointers would you give up-and-coming journalists who want to thrive in this competitive industry?

Andréa: The whole multimedia convergence thing is really huge now. I’d say learn not only how to write and edit but also how to do video, incorporate Google hangout interviews, learn about social media management and start a blog. Basically, learn about every aspect of your business that you can. And networking is everything. I’m really not the type of person who likes to go to mixers, where I don’t know anyone. That’s not really my thing, but if you go to conventions like the National Association of Black Journalists or the Society of Professional Journalists, you can talk to people in the different sessions and it’s not so forced. Also, network while you’re in college with your friends because they may go off and do the same type of thing you’re trying to do.

A Royal Point of View: For those of us who are interested in contributing to Sesi, what do you look for in a pitch? What excites you?

Andréa: I like pitches where the opening is really attention grabbing. I won’t finish reading something that’s like, “Dear Andréa, I would like to write about blah blah blah…” Just get to the point. Tell me the story that you want to write and really grab my attention. And then go into who would you interview for this story and what’s your angle. Be creative. I don’t like the standard, cover letter-looking pitches. Also, be sure that you’ve actually read an issue before you pitch me something because we get a lot of pitches that are just off-based.

On our website, we have a page that’s just for writer’s guidelines, so you want to make sure that you follow all the directions because if you don’t, I don’t even read it because I’m like, “You don’t even follow directions. How can you follow directions when you write an article?” Lastly, we like to get things at least three months in advance. Right now, we’re working on the back-to-school issue, so our deadline for pitches is June 30.

Drew Sidora covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: What if the person pitching is just starting out and has little or no writing clips?

Andréa: If they don’t have a lot of writing clips, I understand that. We’ve all been there, but if the pitch is really strong and I talk to you and you seem to have your stuff together, I might ask for you to send a sample of something that you’ve written just to make sure you have our style down because that’s main thing. You’ve got to be able to speak in our voice. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to be able to write in the voice of the publication you’re writing for. You’ve got to be able to adapt. You should also be able to take constructive criticism.

A Royal Point of View: What are some pitching dos and don’ts?

Andréa: Do your research about the publication you’re pitching for. Make sure you know what kind of articles they’re looking for, what kind of departments they have in their magazine or what they cover on their blog. Do make sure that you follow the writer’s guidelines because they’re there for a reason. We took the time to write them out and tell you exactly what we’re looking for, so you don’t have to guess. Do be creative with your pitches, so that we actually feel compelled to read them. Don’t be rude — that’s big a thing. And don’t waste people’s time.

A Royal Point of View: Looking back, what’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith five years ago when you decided to launch Sesi?

Andréa: I said I was going to do this at this 17 years old. I remember that moment. I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom and I had all these magazines spread around me. And I was like, “Why doesn’t anybody look like me? Well, I should just start a magazine!” But I wasn’t actually serious at the time. Like I said, I did avoid it several times by teaching after graduate school for five years. I launched the magazine while I was teaching but put it on the back-burner and said, “Maybe I won’t do it.”

When I started working at LivingSocial.com, I kept feeling the urge to return to the magazine, so I relaunched it while I was still at LivingSocial.com, but I couldn’t dedicate myself to it 100 percent. It was difficult leaving my day job, but I believe it’s going to be worth it because it’s slow growing, but it’s growing and I think that’s the important part. I was not happy just going to work every day and coming home. All I did was get up, go to work, work all day, come home, watch TV, go to bed and do it again. And it wasn’t that exciting. If you’re going to do it, don’t think it’s easy. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone.

A Royal Point of View: Where do you see Sesi 10 years from now?

Andréa: Well, my hope is that Sesi takes off very soon so that in 10 years, we’ll be the largest magazine for Black teen girls around. By then, we would like to publish 10 times a year, have plenty of ads, be in stores and have a full staff writers and editors. We’ll always be in print, but we’ll probably also have a digital option. And we hope to keep inspiring Black girls everywhere and educate people who aren’t Black — they can read it as well and learn about their Black friends. Hopefully, it’ll be bigger and better than it is now and keep going forever. That’s the plan.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known back then that you know today, professionally speaking?

Andréa: I feel like I learned a lot in graduate school, but you don’t always know what you need to know until you get there. There’s nothing that I feel like was left out necessarily. I think you can only learn a finite amount of information when in you’re in school, which is important because you definitely need the foundation. However, you learn more when you actually get into it and realize all that it takes. And things are always changing. When I was in graduate school in 2003, there was no social media, so as things keep changing, you just have to adapt.

Be sure to follow Sesi Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. To subscribe, click here.