Angela Sinickas is the President of “Sinickas Communications, Inc.” She is one of the participants in the GLL Business Advisors program and was nominated for the Global Lithuanian Awards (for expertise sharing and active support to enterprises of Lithuania). GLL team had a chance to ask her some questions about her path to career success, aspects of setting up a business in USA and her relationship with Lithuania.
You received your bachelor’s degree in Journalism. What was the reason to establish an international communication consulting firm instead of making a career in journalism?
I had never intended to be a journalist, but back in the early 1970s, the University of Illinois did not have a degree in organizational communication. I actually worked part-time as a newsletter editor for the medical school while still in university since I had taken a great many courses in the sciences. I ended up working five years for the university, then five years as internal communication manager at the Chicago Tribune newspaper, four years as a VP of communication for company that doesn’t exist anymore, and a total of 13 years as a consultant and communication practice leader at Hewitt and Mercer, two very large human resources consulting firms. After all that, I felt pretty confident going out on my own. I didn’t realize at the time how much of my business was going to come from outside North America, but in the last five years, from 25% to 70% of our revenue is coming from outside the US/Canada.
Can you tell your story on putting your first steps in the business?
I never thought I would have had the courage to start my own business, but during my last two years at Mercer I realized I was generating nearly all my revenue without much help from the firm because what I did, measuring the impact of communication, was not a mainstream part of their business. Once I realized that revenue stream was likely to continue when I left Mercer, I gained a lot of confidence. I was fortunate to have had stock options at my level at Mercer, and even more fortunate to cash them out early in 2000 before the “dot.com” crash devalued all companies’ stock near the end of the year. I was able to start my firm with an office of five people and lots of brand new office furniture and equipment, and still have some money left over for a “rainy day.”
I was also fortunate in having clients right away. Just before I left Mercer, I had put in a bid for a project with Accenture. Then they told me that their Purchasing department could not authorize the project because Mercer competed with Accenture directly on several types of business and it would be a conflict of interest. There was no way Mercer could do that work. I asked my contact if she would have awarded the project to me if I was not affiliated with Mercer, and she said yes. I asked her to hold off on making a decision on whom to award the contract to for one week. I then gave my notice to Mercer and had a large project to start the business with right away. The project involved focus groups in five European countries, so I guess we became international from our first month!
Have you suffered any difficulties then?
Oh yes! After the dot.com crash, most companies were taken completely by surprise and decided not to spend discretionary funds that weren’t already committed. I think I had three months without a single invoice being sent out. That was scary. Then, just when things were getting back to normal, on September 11, 2001, we had the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. That also slowed down our economy. Then, of course, we had the most recent recession, which has affected revenues as well, but things seem to have gone back to normal again.
Could you identify advantages and disadvantages of setting up a business in USA? What is the business environment for start-uppers in USA?
The laws and taxation for starting up a business vary somewhat from state to state, so it’s important to decide which state you want as your official business address. For example, some states have no income tax, some have a flat 2% income tax rate, and others have a graduated tax so that the more money you make, the higher your taxes–in addition to federal taxes. Also, many states are encouraging businesses to start up with many financial incentives, including income tax “holidays” for a particular number of years. There are also a great many federal laws regarding employment, so if your business will have over a certain number of employees, you need to be very careful to set up a payroll system that can take care of employee and employer tax deductions, and other required deductions, such as workers compensation insurance and unemployment insurance. You need to be aware of many safe working environment laws. I remember we once had an inspection from a fire marshal and we had no idea when our fire extinguisher was last tested since it came with the office we rented. We also have to post certain legal announcements making sure employees know their legal rights. For example, you need to be clear on the exact job responsibilities for different employees to know whether you are required to pay them overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week or if they have to work on holidays–or if they are considered exempt from those laws because they hold a professional position with much discretionary decision-making and the annual salary paid already takes into account the likelihood of working more than 40 hours a week. You need to keep all your financial information for seven years because that is the length of time during which our Internal Revenue Service can conduct an audit for past years.
Many people in the communication field just start consulting on their own if their jobs are made redundant without doing any legal paperwork to start an official business, with an employee population of one. There is no sales tax (or anything like VAT) on consulting services, only on products like my manual on measurement and other measurement tools I sell–and then only if the products are sold to someone in the same state in which the company is based.
The big decision is whether to set up a business as a corporation, which I did, or some type of limited liability company (LLC). Since I was a sole owner and doing business with fairly large companies, being incorporated made my company more attractive to purchasing departments who are looking for stable companies that carry different types of insurance, such as professional liability.
Can you give some useful tips on setting up a business there?
The best advice I ever received on starting a business was to have a good attorney and a good accountant. Based on all the legal/financial considerations I just mentioned, you can see why! Their advice is invaluable in deciding how to set up a business. I also hired a marketing consultant to help identify my markets and our brand. That was another good move and worth every penny. Another useful tip is to make sure you have enough money in the bank to be able to make payroll and pay other bills for at least 12 months. While most companies won’t experience both economic disasters I did in their first 14 months of business, you can always expect something to go wrong.
More than 30 years ago you graduated university and then gained work experience in USA. But what is your relation with Lithuania? How deeply are you connected with Lithuania?
My Lithuanian roots are very deep. Even though I was born in the United States, in the Chicago neighborhoods where I grew up, I don’t think I ever heard a word of English for my first four years. Then we moved to a new neighborhood where the neighbor girls spoke only English, so I learned it from them the summer before I began kindergarten. The church we went to was conducted only in Lithuanian, and sponsored a Lithuanian scouting troop and a folk-dancing group. By the way, my parents both came to the US after WWII and met when my mother was teaching a folk dance group in Chicago and my father ended up being the accordionist. For eight years, I went to Lithuanian school every Saturday during the school year, where we studied Lithuanian grammar/vocabulary, history, geography, and other subjects. I participated in several of the world-wide gatherings of Lithuanian folk-dancing and Lithuanian choral festivals in Chicago and in Toronto, Canada. I had my own national costume. I went to Lithuanian scout camps. I acted in Lithuanian plays. I make “kugelis” and other Lithuanian food for holidays. My Lithuanian heritage is something I have always been very proud of and spoken about to anyone who would listen!
In the last several years, I have been very fortunate to have visited Lithuania four times so far, including three times for business. I’m currently exploring some teaching and projects with ISM in Vilnius and have been mentoring the Vilnius PR firm Novo Media. The visits have been made even more wonderful because I have met Lithuanian friends through business over the years, and so visiting them when I’m in Vilnius has exposed me to so many places and experiences that tourists would never have enjoyed. During my last trip, I started researching my genealogy. On my mother’s side (from around Zemaiciu Naumiestis), I now know all my great-great-grandparents’ names and even one more generation for some of my family lines. A researcher in Vilnius is now helping research my father’s side of the family (Siauliai and Kursenai), so I’m hoping to have more information before Christmas.
I would also like to pursue getting a Lithuanian/EU passport because I believe my family history makes me a Lithuanian citizen under the Constitution. My family lived in Lithuania for many generations and did not leave until 1940 when the Soviets arrived.
To sum up, what was the key to your success in making a career?
I used to worry about every career decision, wondering if it was the right path to take. Looking back, I can see that I could have ended up where I am right now through several different paths. The important thing is to try to learn and do the most you can in every job you have. Pay attention to what parts of the job you enjoy the most and the least. Find ways to do more of what you love and less of what you don’t. I believe that when you are doing what you love, you cannot help but succeed because of the combination of passion and skills, which will help succeed more than people who have skills but no passion for what they’re doing.
I think the other thing is to be clear about what next steps you are looking for, and then you tend to notice more opportunities that will help you achieve that, and it will seem to put people in your path that will help you get there. Over 20 years ago, I wrote down my goal of having a job where people would pay my travel expenses for working internationally. Once I clarified a goal like that, I made sure to be brave and introduce myself to delegates at conferences that came from other countries. I offered to write professional articles for free for journals published in different countries.
My latest career goal is to put my management consulting experience in 32 countries with over 25% of the world’s largest companies to work in a new way. I would like to start serving on corporate boards of directors. To that end, I am nearly finished with a master’s degree in Leadership and I have become very active in a campaign to try to have US corporate boards have at least 20% of their members being women by 2020. The goals for many European countries are much higher than that. Several different management studies have shown that companies with at least three women on their boards outperform their competition financially. I’d like to be part of that success story for several companies myself!