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Durham web marketing firm Unity Digital Agency is celebrating its one year anniversary. Founder Alisa Herr reflects on what brought her to this point and shares her insights for other budding businesses.

Getting an Early Start

“I can’t remember a time computers were not around,” says Unity Digital founder Alisa Herr. Growing up in the time when computers were far from ubiquitous and logging on meant dialing up, Alisa was unique in her love of technology. Her father, a systems administrator, took notice of her interest and taught her the basics of HTML coding when she was in middle school. “While the other kids were playing whatever games they played, I was at the computer trying to build a website using the least amount of code. I made websites for fun that never even went online,” she said. You might think this would lead to an obvious career path, but Alisa says she always thought of computers as a hobby and never imagined she would be where she is today. She studied psychology in college. “I wanted to help people. I loved it, especially doing research,” said Alisa. So she returned to school for her master’s degree in library science. She excelled in school and when her program needed someone to help with the library’s website, Alisa was eager to lend a hand.

Cracking the Code to a Career

But while Alisa was doing well in school, outside the economy was not. She graduated at the height of the Great Recession. Governments, the main employer of librarians, were under hiring freezes. It was then she first began to think of making her computer hobby her career. She got a job as a junior developer at a design firm in Durham, where she worked for nearly 5 years. While she loved what she was doing, Alisa admits getting started was not easy. “I was really underpaid for my job,” she said. “Part of it was working at a smaller startup, but part of it was institutional sexism.” She says she felt the pressure of being a woman in the male-dominated industry. “I felt like I had to not just prove I could do the work, but that I could do it twice as well.”

Finding the Right Fit

Following her first job, Alisa got the opportunity to move into the nonprofit space and felt much more at home. It fulfilled her desire to help people that first motivated her to study psychology in college. After two years at the nonprofit, EducationNC, Alisa decided she could do the most good by setting out on her own and founding Unity Digital Agency. Unity is a web design and digital marketing strategy firm with a greater purpose. “The idea is to support and enlist the help of people doing good,” said Alisa. “My drive is to help nonprofits and businesses who are helping others, and to contribute to the economic success of North Carolina.”

Learning to Be Brave

Alisa admits she didn’t have a business background when she was getting Unity off the ground. “But I’m a planner,” she said. “I figured out how to write a business plan and how to make simple financial models.” She took a one-day workshop designed to teach creative entrepreneurs financial skills. She left the workshop with a breakeven analysis. “Of course, I was way optimistic. Those numbers did not work out. But it helped me be brave.” Alisa says even though small business owners will outsource their accounting, it is still beneficial to have a base knowledge and comfort with the books.

Businesses Are Like Babies

Throughout her time starting up Unity, Alisa has made it a point not to isolate herself. Even though her industry allows her to work from home easily, that’s not her style. Alisa joined a local co-working space, Nido. Nido offers workspace, collaboration opportunity, and child care all under one roof.  “It gave me role models to look up to,” said Alisa. “I got close to a lot of other women entrepreneurs, especially those with families.” That was a good thing for Alisa, who says she sometimes feels her company is more like a child. As a mother of two kids, Alisa says when she was starting out, it felt a lot like having a newborn. “I was up all night worrying about things. I worked all the time. If I got sick, there was nobody to pick up the slack.”

The Team Comes Together

These days, Alisa has a growing team around her. She is somewhat unique in her industry in that she makes it a point to recruit from her own community. “There’s a remote working trend right now, and I’m all for it,” she said. “But I appreciate face-to-face conversation. There are some times you just need to have a pow-wow in person.” Hiring local in an industry where many work remotely from across the globe also takes cost-of-living adjustments out of the equation when setting salaries. After her early-career experience earning less than her male counterparts, Alisa makes salary equity a focus in her firm. “I have a schedule of pay rates and I work hard at making sure employees and contractors are paid solely based on ability and experience. It’s not subjective.”

Defining Success

Her desire to give back also led to a niche market serving the nonprofit community. “My marketing manager, Rebecca, and I both have a background in nonprofits,” said Alisa. “We get what is important to them, how they communicate, and what it’s like to make financial decisions in those kinds of organizations.” For Alisa, success is not measured just by Unity’s financial growth, but its ability to give back and make a difference in her community.

Padgett’s 3 Wise Questions:

  1. If you could bake a success pie, what would the ingredients be? “Courage, good judgement, and integrity.”
  2. If you had one more hour in each day, how would you spend it? “I would probably keep working, but I know I should use it to sleep!”
  3. If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why? “Elon Musk. His creativity and ability to innovate are amazing. Plus, he’s really weird and I like weirdos.”

For more information on Unity Digital Agency, visit www.unitymakes.us