It may be who you know as well as what you know in the business world. So, two UWM alums have turned making connections in the marketing field into a six-figure-plus a year business.
Jeff and Martha Carrigan, who run the Big Shoes Network, connect job seekers with businesses looking for talent. Their online enterprise focuses on advertising, marketing, communications, public relations, social media, graphic and web design.
“I think they’re definitely one of the best resources for reaching marketing and public relations talent locally and in the Chicago area,” said Megan Rouleau, a recruitment director at marketing services firm Bader Rutter who has worked with the Carrigans for eight years. “We have other sources, but some of the most qualified applicants are applying through the Big Shoes Network.”
Jeff Carrigan, who is the founder and chief marketing officer, earned his bachelor of business administration degree with an emphasis in marketing from UWM and started the business after he began some informal networking looking for opportunities.
Often he found jobs that weren’t right for him but might be a good fit for others he knew. “As I networked for myself, I heard about other jobs, so I emailed the information out to people I knew who might be interested.”
That simple email list, which included the job title, brief description and a contact, quickly grew from 50 names to 150, then 600. “When it reached 1,500 or 2,000 names – Martha and I were both working full-time and doing this at nights – we thought we were either going to have to quit doing the list or make a business of it.”
“What kind of pushed us over the edge was that we had some large companies using us like Northwestern Mutual and Laughlin Constable, and they started asking, ‘Why aren’t you charging for this?” said Martha Carrigan, who is the company’s president and CEO and earned her bachelor’s in communications from UWM.
A business blooms
Their informal email postings of job opportunities in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois became a full-fledged business in 2006 when they launched a website. “We were in the black in six months,” said Martha Carrigan. “I quit my job to work on the Big Shoes Network full-time.” (Jeff joined the business full-time in 2007.)
Big Shoes Network now has two regions – Big Shoes Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois) and Big Shoes South (Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina).
The name came from a chance comment from a client looking to replace an employee who told them, “I’ve got some big shoes to fill.”
It was a good fit for what they were trying to do, said Martha Carrigan. “We wanted something a little below the radar because we offer a lot of resources besides job postings – we offer news and events, information about professional organizations and a resource directory.”
The Carrigans keep the business small and focused on purpose. “We’re very much of a niche site – a one trick pony if you will,” said Jeff Carrigan. “We’re not really competing with general purpose job boards where you can look for a nurse or a human resources person or a marketing professional. Everything we do is under the marketing umbrella, so we only attract that kind of talent.”
The Carrigans build and maintain their connections in visits to college campuses, attendance at professional events and just knowing people in the field.
“I think they go above and beyond,” said Rouleau. “They know everybody, and they’re great connectors.”
Making money out of their idea is great, said Jeff Carrigan, but there’s also fulfillment. “What we really like is helping connect people with employers – helping a student land his or her first internship or job, helping people who’ve been downsized find that new opportunity; helping a stay-at-home mom or dad get back into the workforce.”
Students find jobs
Ashley Batzner, a UWM alum, got both an internship and her first job out of college in 2011 through Big Shoes Network after the Carrigans spoke to her class and at a Public Relations Society Student Association meeting. The network’s website was a great help, Batzner said.
“They were a good resource for my field, one of the only places where you could look specifically for jobs in communications,” Batzner said.
Kaitlin Schlick, a 2011 graduate, also learned about Big Shoes Network through her UWM classes and PRSSA meetings. She had a passion for marketing in the arts, and through the network found an internship with the Milwaukee Rep that turned into a full-time job. When she went job searching in Minnesota three years later, she turned to the network again.
“I was so thankful to have such a reliable source like BSM to look for opportunities in a new, unfamiliar state.” She’s now working for Sesame Street Live in Minnesota. “I trust Big Shoes Midwest and continue to tell friends and colleagues that if they a seeking a change in their career to check the BSM website to find the best opportunities in the Midwest.”
The Carrigans say their UWM education has helped them, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Jeff Carrigan found accounting, a class he didn’t like, was one of his most valuable. “The more I was in the business world, the more I realized the value of the ability to read financial statements and balance sheets, to know how a company makes money.”
Martha Carrigan found her writing and public speaking classes and a student job doing research helped prepare her for running a business.
For now, they are content with keeping the business a manageable size, and enjoy working from home. Other than outsourcing web work, accounting and legal services, Big Shoes Network remains a two-person operation.
However, the expansion into the South was deliberate, said Jeff Carrigan.
“As we get older and the winters get colder here, the South is attractive. I could get used to working on a beach with a Corona and a lime in it.”