How A Public Relations Specialist, A Bowtie And A Dog Are Changing The Entrepreneurial Landscape of Loudon County
by Justin Ayars, JD
Rusty Foster loves bowties. I mean, he REALLY loves them. Certainly, being a graduate of Hampton-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia has something to do with Rusty’s affection for the classic neckwear. However, for Rusty the bow tie is not just a fashion accessory—it symbolizes an outlook that is the foundation of his Leesburg-based business, Bow Tie Strategies (BTS). To Rusty, bow ties epitomize the spirit of Mayberry, the fictional community that was the setting of The Andy Griffith Show. Over the years, the town’s name has come to represent idyllic small-town life, simpler times and southern hospitality. BTS has integrated the spirit of Mayberry into its business model to create what Rusty calls “the bow tie philosophy.” By incorporating traditional, small-town values with the demands of the modern business world, Rusty has built an enterprise that has one foot in the past, one foot in the present and a watchful eye towards the future.
Thank You, Dixie
Opening a small business is never easy. Unless you’ve taken the entrepreneurial plunge yourself, it’s hard to understand the joy, the fear and the uncertainty that comes with the territory. After graduating from college in 2004, Rusty began dabbling in work as a political fundraiser and event manager. “I’ve always wanted my own business. But I didn’t know what it was going to be or what path I’d take.” One day, after putting together a successful event in town, all of that changed when someone asked Rusty if he did consulting work. At that moment, Rusty said, “It just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Rusty’s fundraising and event management work “morphed into public relations and helping businesses and individuals tell their stories and grow their business.” As a public relations specialist and business consultant, he found that, “Many business owners are so busy working in their business that they don’t have time to work on their business. So I sit down with them and figure out what their core messages are and how to get those messages out to the masses. It’s really about taking that onion and peeling it back.”
Rusty loves the entrepreneurial lifestyle. “It’s energizing. It gives me flexibility. I get to grow my business as I see fit. But it’s also scary because there is no safety net of a steady salary or health insurance.” The biggest challenge for Rusty is wearing so many hats. “I have to be the administrative person, the business development person, the human resources person, the tax person, etc.” Rusty confesses, “I hate doing reporting, invoicing and the admin stuff. I loath it!”
In looking to diversify BTS’s services, Rusty turned to his college friend, Demas Boudreaux, who has experience in government relations. “Bringing Demas on board has really added depth to the company. Now we are a full service public affairs firm that can do public relations as well as government lobbying.” Perhaps most importantly, Rusty has a trusted advisor, Dixie—his 6-year-old pug who sleeps under his desk. Rusty confesses, “She has helped me grow my business more than she would know. It’s gotten to the point where people in the community known about Dixie and ask how she’s doing. A lot of people are especially excited about our annual Christmas card!”
The Bow Tie Philosophy
In 2016, Rusty will continue to grow his business according to “the bow tie philosophy.” This, he explains, is the individual attention you give to somebody. “It’s the Mayberryesqe feel of a handwritten note, a phone call, a handshake or holding the door open for someone. It’s the characteristics of a small-town, southern feel that you don’t see much any more. This attitude resonates with people here locally as well as in the DC area.” Rusty never wants his company to grow larger than ten people. He wants to keep BTS small because “you need to know your clients intimately and know their individual stories. You’ve got to know what they do on the weekends, what their kids’ names are, what they do for fun and what kind of wine they drink. If you become too large you lose that personal connection.”
BTS is a margin-driven business with a strong community mission. “It’s not always about the dollar. It’s about people, too. If you put good mojo into the world, it will come back to you.” In 2015, BTS put plenty of good mojo into the community by donating 300 hours of pro bono service and 20% of its net profits to local nonprofits.
Being a Gay Entrepreneur in Leesburg
According to Rusty, the small business community in Leesburg is “thriving,” thanks in large part to the efforts of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. Does the historically conservative town 40 miles northwest of DC also embrace diversity? “I think it’s coming around. As a business owner, I don’t go out and immediately say I’m Rusty Foster, gay business owner. People know that I’m gay, but it’s not the main topic of discussion. I think many people just don’t care. It’s less of an issue after marriage equality.” In fact, some of his clients actually want to know more about Rusty’s sexuality “because they think it’s interesting. I laugh because I don’t know what they want to know. It’s not like gay business owners have quarterly meetings with secret handshakes.”
Take the Entrepreneurial Plunge
When asked what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Rusty simply states, “Don’t be afraid to fail. You will learn more from failure than you will from all the success in the world.” If you self-identify as LGBT and worry that your identity may negatively impact your business, Rusty adds, “Society is more accepting now. So take the plunge, have fun and don’t live in fear.” If you do, you might even learn the secret handshake.