Ottawa marketing guru stays True to her business vision

Shelley True has never been afraid to take risks while building her firm into a market leader
Shelley True
Shelley True is the owner of Ottawa-based TRUEdotDESIGN. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

As a wise and successful entrepreneur once said, it’s better to risk than to regret.

You can safely assume she wasn’t speaking in a cramped office cubicle over a crappy cup of coffee but in the boardroom of a company she single-handedly built from scratch.

“I’ve always had a vision of myself being at the helm,” says Shelley True, 44, owner of Ottawa-based TRUEdotDESIGN Strategic Marketing, Branding + Design. “Of course, the safer, less risky route would have been to work for someone else’s agency, but the opportunity for growth – or the lack of – would have held me back.”

Five years ago, Ms. True left her promising career with steady income to launch her own firm, dedicated to filling the marketing void within the architectural and engineering sector. She’d already worked 15 years in the industry and thought it could use her help promoting itself.

It was a gutsy move when one considers her situation: She was a divorced single mom, raising her young daughter (a competitive dancer with a rigorous schedule, to boot) on her own. She had to make a strong case to the bank when it came to securing a loan. Still, she managed to pull it off.

“I’m not averse to taking risks,” says Ms. True, who supported herself while she attended college. “I’ve never been afraid of failure.”

In 2015, she made another brave business move: she bought award-winning Ottawa-based marketing and advertising firm Avenue Design. The acquisition of the larger agency meant TRUEdotDESIGN would work with a higher volume of clients and a greater talent pool of staff and would offer a wider range of strategic marketing services. Her clientele remained in the construction, homebuilding, architectural, engineering and related sectors.

Ms. True had no way of knowing at the time whether things would work out with her financial gamble.

“It’s a bit scary when you think about it because you don’t know, because you could fail and lose your home – the home that your daughter is in.”

The acquisition proved a smart move. Her company’s revenues rose by 25 per cent in the first year afterward.

It wasn’t long before the accolades started rolling in for TRUEdotDESIGN. The agency landed a record 10 SAM Awards for sales and marketing at last year’s Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association awards gala. Ms. True was also named the Distinctive Women’s 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year and was a finalist at Ottawa’s 2017 Businesswoman of the Year Gala in the emerging entrepreneur category.

New office space

TRUEdotDESIGN recently relocated to bright and airy new digs on Spruce Street in Little Italy, occupying a space with architectural interest dating back to the early 1900s that now serves as a creative hub of sorts.

As the company grew, so did its team: from three to its current complement of 15. And they’re all women. That wasn’t planned, says Ms. True, who’s open to introducing some male testosterone to the place. She describes her team as cohesive, collaborative and anything but catty.

“We speak about women standing beside each other, and never in front or behind. Don’t be in competition with one another; just be comfortable in your own skin.”

Ms. True’s biggest challenge is finding enough time in her day, proving that the life of the entrepreneur is not for the slacker.  

“I love what I do,” she explains. “Working a 14-hour day feels like seven to me.”

Typically, Ms. True is up around 6:30 a.m. She does some work at home before dropping her 12-year-old daughter Bryn off at school. She then listens to a TED Talk during her drive in from Barrhaven – a routine that helps her transition between roles and embrace her mindset for the day ahead.

At the office, she grabs some more java, answers a few emails and then spends the rest of the day – until 6 or 7 p.m. – meeting with clients to build their marketing strategies, as well as reaching out to new clients in her business development role. After she gets home, she’ll spend part of her evening preparing for her next workday.

“Nothing really ruffles my feathers,” Ms. True says of her ability to appear calm, cool and collected in stressful situations. “Things just pop up and I manage it, because there’s always a solution.

“I thrive on the daily challenges of being a business owner.”

Five things you should know about Shelley True

  1. She was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her classmates at Algonquin College, where she earned a diploma in marketing.
  2. Only once has she turned on her automatic “out of office” email reply. It was last January. She was away on a ski holiday.
  3. One time, being a dance-mom saved her bacon. Ms. True was the keynote speaker for a group of architects and engineers at a conference in Toronto when she learned, while setting up her presentation on stage, that she had a gaping hole in the backside of her dress. The concierge was without a sewing kit and she had only minutes to spare. Luckily, she had in her purse an extra safety pin in case her daughter, a competitive dancer, ever needed it for a costume. “I pinned up my dress and then presented in front of all those people.” Whew.
  4. Ms. True wears only dresses. And heels, taking her to six feet two inches tall.
  5. She serves on the advisory board for Ottawa’s Women in Business Conference as event team lead, communications.