Secrets of Success: Donna Maria Coles Johnson -
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Secrets of Success: Donna Maria Coles Johnson

We’ve launched Secrets of Success, a new weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum. I’ve asked some of the smartest, most innovative, most successful people I know to share their insights and success secrets.

Meet: Donna Maria Coles Johnson. Donna Maria is an author, attorney, and the founder and CEO of the Indie Business Network, a nationwide trade organization serving makers of cosmetics, jewelry, perfume, candles and other artisanal products. Donna Maria also produces and hosts the Indie Business Podcast and is a speaker, mentor and coach. It’s no wonder she was selected by the SBA as the Home-Based Business Advocate of the Year.

Rieva Lesonsky: Who did you want to be when you grew up?

Donna Maria Coles Johnson: Maureen Bunyan, a celebrated Washington, DC, news anchor at various affiliates through the years. She is the first African-American woman I remember
seeing on television and I always wanted to be as beautiful and as polished as her. I went
to journalism school because of Maureen Bunyan, who will soon be inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.

Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?

Donna Maria: I could not find the [right] job for me, so I created it. I started the Indie Business Network because I felt my career as an attorney had topped out, and that the traditional work force had nothing more to offer me. I had a great job, and was well
paid. I traveled a lot and worked with a lot of wonderful people.

But I wanted to chart my own course. Instead of building a life around my career, I wanted to have the freedom and flexibility to be creative and build my career around my life. I was not able to do that in the corporate world. I tried to find a part-time job or something that would allow me to set my own schedule, but I could not find a good fit. Since I could not find the job for me, I created it.

Lesonsky: Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?

Donna Maria: Yes! Several. The one I will share with you is when I was recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as the Home-Based Business Advocate of the Year. It was then I realized that others realized that the work I was doing was not just for me, but for home-based businesses and creative entrepreneurs like me all over the country.

I was so honored to be recognized, and the experience helped me to expand my vision. I don’t just work for myself. I work for visionary entrepreneurs everywhere.

Lesonsky: What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Donna Maria: I have received so much incredible advice from colleagues and mentors through the years, but one of the best was a golden nugget from one of the smartest and most creative entrepreneurs I know. I once told my mentor, Andrew Sherman, who is a noted author and attorney, that I had become bored with my business. I complained that it
was the same thing over and over again, and I wanted something new and untested and exciting. Attorney Sherman looked at me over his glasses and said (and I can almost quote him exactly), “That means your business is working. If you have systems in place that make it efficient, and you are still growing and you are profitable, that’s no reason to be bored. That’s a reason to celebrate your success. Find your excitement elsewhere. Keep your business machine humming.”

I have never forgotten that advice and I pass it on often, especially to other creative entrepreneurs who may tend to seek bright and shiny new things at the expense of being profitable.

Lesonsky: What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Donna Maria: Turning every single business goal into a system that can be used to achieve that goal over and over again. For example, if your goal is to increase your mailing list, use a list-building system to do that, and do it repeatedly until the goal is accomplished. Tweak the system as needed to achieve new goals and accommodate new technologies.

This logic can be used for every single thing you do—whether you are making cosmetics or publishing e-books. Every goal can be broken down into the tasks that will maximize the chances that it will be achieved.

Create systems, use them and tweak them, then recreate them and use them some more. It works.

Lesonsky: Do you have a 2014 small business prediction?

Donna Maria: More people will intentionally choose to go big without growing big. There was a time not too long ago when [it seemed] every small business success story started with how much revenues a business had. That tide will turn as people being to define success on their own terms and on what’s right for their whole lives, and not just for their pocketbooks.

Lesonsky: Do you have a favorite book?

Donna Maria: I have many, but one of my favorites is The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.I love it for its simplicity and the basic message that success does not require one great, big, huge thing. It can be achieved over time by taking one small step at a time in the direction of your dreams.

Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Donna Maria:  Yes, an African proverb—“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at, follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.
Rieva Lesonsky

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