Sabrina Horn is an award-winning CEO, C-suite advisor, communications expert, and author of MAKE IT, DON’T FAKE IT: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 22, 2021. With only $500 and five years of work experience, she founded Horn Group, a public relations firm that for a quarter century, advised thousands of executives and their companies—from the hottest startups to the Fortune 500. She was one of few female CEOs in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s and has always aimed to exemplify authenticity and advise her clients on its merits. She’s written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Entrepreneur, Forbes, and CMO.com.
Q: What's your background, and what are you working on?
As a child of German immigrants, I was infused with my parents’ survival instincts and entrepreneurial spirit. I was raised to strive to control my own destiny. After getting a graduate degree in Public Relations and working for a few years, I wanted to start my own firm. At 29 years old and with no management training, no capital, no employees and a four-page business plan, I took a vacation day and pitched a startup on my capabilities. By the time I got home, I received a message that I had won their business. The irony of it all was when I told my parents that night about my big win: they told me they didn’t think I would be successful and that I shouldn’t do it. Their reasons: I had no formal training or education in business and my chances of “making it” were slim at best. But after a day of self-reflection and re-assessing my risk factors, I decided to proceed anyway. I believed that if I didn’t try, I would never know if I could be successful.
I ran that company for 24 years, was awarded Best US Employer and Best Independent Tech US Agency and helped to put over 1,000 companies on the map in the tech industry. In 2015, I decided it was time to do something different and prepared the company for acquisition. I happily worked for Finn Partners, the company that bought my company until 2018, and then decided to write a book, Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success, coming out June 22, 2021 with Berrett Koehler. The purpose of the book is to help entrepreneurs and executives run their businesses with a renewed focus on integrity and resist the temptation to fake it which only sabotages success. I also started a new consulting practice called Horn Strategy.
What motivated you to get started with Horn Strategy?
I started Horn Strategy to help entrepreneurs navigate the early stages of their businesses. I advise on go-to-market strategy, marketing plans, messaging, and with provide connections to resources in the areas of funding, legal counsel and marketing/communications. Through two lenses as a PR professional and as a CEO of my own business, I have a keen sense of the pressures entrepreneurs and CEOs face, and the problems they need to solve. I wrote my book in tandem with starting this firm, because I want to encourage a renewed focus on integrity in business leadership. I feel like over the last decade some folks forgot to read the memo that integrity matters. “Fake it till you make it” became a mantra and its terrible business advice.
How have you attracted clients and grown your firm?
My purpose right now is to launch my book and help leaders lead with authenticity and honesty. I’m open to what that brings to me, but mostly I want to be a resource for entrepreneurs and founders in whatever way makes sense.
What are your goals for the future?
My big picture goal is to help fuel a larger move back to authenticity and integrity in society and business. I want to show entrepreneurs how to resist the temptation to fake it and to do things the right way, which means doing them the hard way, and to lead with integrity. Leading with integrity is hard because to do so, you have to be grounded in reality. And what do we know about reality? It can be very hard to face sometimes, with business problems swirling around you, difficult decisions and choices to make, and conflicting interests to navigate.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
The biggest challenges I have faced are those moments where all my options are undesirable. For example, I have been confronted with the decision to either let some of my employees go in a lay off because of a market downturn or, keep them and have trouble making payroll because the revenue coming in isn’t enough to cover employee costs. You have to make the right decisions at the right time based on the reality of the situation and in the face of tremendous disruption. You have to make decisions that may be very unpopular to protect the financial health of the company and for its long-term success. Doing the right thing sometimes comes with a price. That is what you sign up for as a leader.
What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
In part, the advice I would offer for female founders is the same as what I would offer to men. In writing your business plan, think of all the tough questions and objections you might get from investors, customers, and advisors and answer them. Do your homework, poke holes in your own strategy and make sure it’s airtight. Establish core values for your business at the outset. Let them infuse your culture and business practices and build an authentic brand. Remember creating a values-based cultures is a lot easier than fixing a dysfunctional one later. Disarm fear and organize risk with contingency planning and by seeking information. You can navigate almost any situation if your plan for the worst and hope for the best.
As a woman and a trailblazer, you may find moments where loneliness and imposter syndrome can creep in. With few people to share your journey and the daily pressures of starting a business mounting, you may feel isolated, which can cause extra anxiety and even depression. Ensure you have a solid “safety net” of mentors and champions you can trust who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to here. Fight imposter syndrome by assessing your real achievements and taking inventory of what you’ve accomplished. Practice “acting as if” and visualizing yourself in your own movie to imagine how it will play out. Remember, you don’t need to fake it because you have what it takes to make it!