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Secrets of Success: Lisa Vallee-Smith

Rieva Lesonsky
secrets of success

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: Lisa Vallee-Smith, the co-founder and co-CEO of Airfoil, a multidimensional marketing communications consultancy and Holmes Report Tech Agency of The Year. Airfoil is also an Advertising Age Best Place To Work.

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

Lisa Vallee-Smith: A magazine publisher! I was obsessed with Gloria Steinem [cofounder of Ms. Magazine] and Helen Gurley Brown [legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine]! I was a teenager during the women’s movement in the 1970s and my celeb heroes were the likes of Billie Jean King and Margaret Thatcher.

Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?

Vallee-Smith: Freedom to take risks; a creative outlet; opportunity to make a difference in Detroit, my home town; and to prove to my family that as a woman I was just as capable of doing business as any man–there’s that 70’s influence again.

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

Vallee-Smith: Not in particular. Running a business is like parenting: It’s a long hard slog with many ups and downs and you don’t see what you’ve made for many years. Worthwhile? You bet. Fun? Tons. Would I do it again? Not likely.

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

Vallee-Smith: From my dad, “Take on debt only as a last resort” and “Don’t be a slave to your bank.”

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

Vallee-Smith: Put yourself last and your employees and customers first. Too many business owners get into trouble thinking the business exists for them. A business exists for those you serve—if you happen to benefit from that, great.

Lesonsky: Do you have a 2014 small business prediction?

Vallee-Smith: Slower than hoped growth; the 2008 hangover is still hangin’ on.

Lesonsky: Do you have a favorite book?

Vallee-Smith: Winning by Jack Welch. He’s a badass.

Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Vallee-Smith: I like Jack Welch’s advice on strategy: “Pick a direction and go like hell.”

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Author information

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.