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Making lemonade out of lemons has been an overriding theme in Jennifer Barnes’ life.
It may have started the day when Barnes, as a teenaged employee at Orange Julius, tried promoting her own creation of lemon drinks over the standard orange drinks. She was fired.
In fact, Barnes said she was fired “close to a dozen times” before she turned 20. “I can follow rules, but I can’t follow rules for the sake of rules — I like to make the rules, which means I’m pretty much unemployable,” she said with a laugh.
This pattern reversed itself after Barnes — a native of Las Vegas — earned her degree in finance from the University of Arizona and she began her career by working at Petco’s corporate headquarters in San Diego. She switched gears three years later when she was given the opportunity to become the controller for a local mortgage and real estate organization, which set off a chain of events that would lead her to become the successful entrepreneur she is today.
[su_pullquote align="right"]Fun Fact #1: Barnes is an avid snowboarder and loves racing downhill at 45 – 50 MPH.[/su_pullquote]
Since this was the first time that Barnes had worked in a management position, she decided to increase her chances for success by returning to school to expand her business knowledge. She chose to attend the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University to earn her Executive MBA (EMBA) because she “liked the environment — it just felt like a good fit.” “The whole experience helped me to better understand processes, people and business interactions,” she said.
It was an experience she would draw on time-after-time as the real estate market began to take a sharp downward turn shortly before she earned her EMBA in 2008. Upon sensing this seismic shift in the market, she made the decision to leave the real estate industry early that same year to join Tatum LLC which supplied accounting and financial executive personnel (for example, interim chief financial executives) to organizations on a temporary basis.
It was a change that would have a monumental impact on her career and, while this was a new experience for her, Barnes was immediately fascinated by this industry. She began work as an interim controller for various client companies who had contracted with Tatum for short-term financial executive services.
In 2011, she was approached by an in-house recruiter at a competing company. She accepted their offer, however, she found that she was not compatible with the company’s management and was terminated within two years.
In what could have been a rough patch in her career, Barnes chose to make lemonade from the lemons she was handed. The company gave many of her clients the choice as to whether they wanted to stay with their large firm or go with Barnes as she established her own organization. In what she describes as a “Jerry Maguirish moment,” not only did 75% of her clients choose to go with Barnes, but some of her staff also came with her to the new company.
With a ready-made clientele and a dedicated staff, Barnes took what she knew from her career experience, along with knowledge gained from her EMBA, and set up her new company out of her living room. It all happened just six weeks before her wedding. “It was great timing” said Barnes, “because I left my maiden name behind and became Jennifer Barnes, just in time for my entrepreneurial spirit to kick back in.”
During this 6-week time frame, she was introduced to a local operations expert who had a full-time job, but had recently established a startup in the same industry as Barnes’ company called Pro Back Office as a side gig. The company hadn’t yet built a strong clientele, so in 2012 the two agreed to join forces in a 50-50 split, with Barnes in the driver’s seat as the CEO. After several years and 40 employees later, Barnes’ partner became the company’s chief operations officer.
[su_pullquote align="right"]Fun Fact #2: Barnes has been boxing weekly for 14 years.[/su_pullquote]
Though the two were equal partners in the organization until 2015 when they offered a third partner 10% equity in the business, Barnes said she felt many challenges as a woman in what is traditionally a male-dominated field. “The majority of outsourced accounting and fractional CFO firms are run by men,” she said. “Earlier in my career journey, I didn’t feel I was taken as seriously as my male counterparts, but eventually I stopped letting that perception bother me. It no longer offends me if I am asked ‘who do you work for?’ or ‘whose assistant are you?’.”
During 2017 and 2018 the three partners were not aligned, and Barnes was outvoted 55% to her 45% on numerous occasions. Although she had a major role in growing the company to 90 employees with revenues totaling over $6 million by 2018, tensions with the three owners reached a boiling point, and Barnes was terminated by her own company in the third quarter of 2018.
As she had done previously, Barnes chose to turn her bad situation into a win for herself and she again decided to establish her own company. She realized she had enough expertise and industry knowledge to re-build a new company, only this time, she would be the sole owner.
While Barnes had the inclination, relationships, and experience to build another startup, she needed capital and she had to secure her husband’s backing before she utilized the couple’s shared nest egg. “My husband had to be okay with me dumping most of our savings into the new business,” she said. “Luckily, he gave his full support, which allowed me to hire 40 employees in 90 days and reach $3.3 million in revenue in year one.
The Monday after she left Pro Back Office, she started Optima Office Inc. and three weeks later, she moved her new company to an office space across the street from her former company. Over 20 employees followed her to Optima Office along with twice that number of clients.
In 2020, Barnes’ second year as the CEO of Optima Office, the company reached $4.7 million in revenue and had 70 employees. For 2021, she said the company is on track for $7 million and she plans to hire another 20 people. “The dissolution of the partnership at Pro Back Office turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Barnes. “Things happen for a reason.”
While she still faced some challenges in her new endeavor as a sole proprietor, Barnes did what she always did when life threw her lemons by staying driven and true to herself. When asked what advice she’d give other young women who are considering starting their own business, she would advise them to follow the same logic that helped her become successful: “Stay strong in your convictions and stay confident in who you are,” she said. “Power through and persevere, and don’t let anyone tell you ‘you can’t’.”