We took some time to chat with Sierra Vernon of Mountain Rose Productions, about her company and her experience using ZenBusiness. Sierra is a producer, singer, and songwriter from Austin, Texas. Listen to her music on Spotify.
Sierra: I am a born and raised Austinite. I have been a musician since I was about 12, and I am currently working on, being super famous and wealthy,
Corie: Woo! Get it!
Sierra: This is a big step in that process. I also try to be an active member of the whole be-nice-to-other-people community. Here in Austin that’s a little bit easier. I’m basically an Austinite who is a musician, and I fulfill every stereotype you could imagine. I sing about peace and love, walk the dog, drink Topo Chico, and eat barbecue. So that’s me.
Corie: There’s a Topo Chico and a dog in this room during the interview! What kind of music do you make?
Sierra: Currently I am making folk-ish music. Think about Joni Mitchell, or Don Mclean, who did the song “American Pie,” and stuff like that. I’ve done a lot of musical theater in the past, and now I want to move into a little bit more pop-related music because that’s more marketable. Currently we’re in a folk-ish vein.
Corie: Do you play any instruments?
Sierra: Yes, I play several. I sing; that’s my primary instrument. I also play the piano and the guitar, and every once in a while I get back on the French horn, but that’s not as needed. That’s the music industry here in Austin.
Corie: I went to bluegrass camp and play the mandolin and banjo, so I feel you on the “not as needed.” Before you started Mountain Rose Productions, what were you doing?
Sierra: I was trying to get booked for gigs, working a day job, and trying to just make as much money as I could exclusively doing music in a performance capacity. Then I realized that, if I wanted to actually make money, the thing that makes you money and music is not the person on the front of the stage. It is the person that books that person or that does the production of a music video or an album. I don’t want to completely move away from performance; that is really what I want to do, but I want to be able to control the income that I get as a performer. I’m starting from the position of being in a management capacity of myself, and then any sort of video projects or albums and things people hire me to do for them. I can manage their projects and get those income revenues to then put into performances that I like to do. It was a strange transition to understanding how I could be more business savvy with my own performance. There’s only so much money you can earn if you’re just performing in bars, especially in a solo performance capacity. I don’t have a band; it’s just me, so there’s a cap on where you’re going to go unless somebody “discovers you” and starts throwing money at you. Realistically you have to make that opportunity for yourself.
Corie: Is that your business purpose?
Sierra: Yes. The business purpose is to have more income streams possible because of managing art projects. You don’t really need to sign a recording contract so long as you have the capital to get the project started because when people buy the album, that’s when you’re making money. There is a change in the music industry. You don’t need to be on a record label to make money. Running the business means I don’t have to rely on someone else to tell me how a contract is going to be signed. I’m going to make the contract and it’s going to be with my business so that I’m not personally liable for things that sometimes go south in business interactions.
Corie: A lot of people are doing independent labels or doing their own thing today. That’s the glory of technology and the internet. What inspired you to start your business?
Sierra: I did a Kickstarter this past year to get my album funded. I’m writing all the music, but I didn’t have the capital to start recording because that’s pretty expensive. I had to do all this research about copyright and royalty rights for the album, and at the end of that kickstarter I realized I probably should have a business that runs this. I don’t want my personal taxes to be held liable, and I want to make sure that I’m really in control of how I earn my money as the album takes off and I start doing performances again. Managing that Kickstarter put the idea in my brain. “You should probably have a business and not fly by the seat of your pants.”
Check out Sierra’s KickStarter
Corie: When you were first forming your business, what were you most afraid of?
Sierra: I was most worried that I was going to accidentally file the paperwork wrong. That sounds silly.
Corie: A lot of people are worried about it. That’s why we’re here!
Sierra: Yes! That’s why this is fabulous. You start looking at all the paperwork on the website and think, “Wow. I don’t know what most of these words mean in this context. There are a lot of forms.” I’ve tried to educate myself about tax, but there is a whole degree to understand taxes and I don’t have that degree. I was really worried that I was going to accidentally file the wrong kind of business or put something that would get me rejected from the State Department. I was feeling very insecure about paperwork. I figured once I had the LLC started I can hire a CPA and hire a bookkeeper. Just to get started I was like, “Oh, what if I do this wrong and I don’t even realize it and then I get in trouble for some reason?”
Corie: You definitely want to make sure you do it right so you’re protected…
Sierra: …because taxes are the worst.
Corie: Ha, yes! Was that the most difficult part of starting your business? Or if it wasn’t, what was the biggest challenge you faced when starting your business?
Sierra: I think for me that was the biggest challenge. I wasn’t starting the business and starting a project simultaneously. I didn’t have to do capital revenue stuff, I just had to get the business established. Definitely the anxiety and the paperwork stuff was my biggest hurdle to feel, “I have this.”
Corie: You didn’t have any challenges outside formalizing your business?
Sierra: No. The business is a kind of label placeholder for myself. There haven’t been a lot of logistics issues with the company overall. When I’m paying for something I’m paying for it out of my performance revenue and I’m currently running the business on that sort of market. I haven’t done any big loans. I don’t have a physical office; my phone is my office. There’s no like acquisition issues. In this initial startup point, I’ve tried to minimize stuff like that because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to dig myself into a hole starting the business. I don’t like that.
Corie: You don’t want to start from negative, but most businesses do. How did you find out about ZenBusiness?
Sierra: I have a friend that works for ZenBusiness. He is stellar. I never asked him what he did. I just knew he worked in tech, like most people’s friends. I was talking about getting an album done and needing to start an LLC. He said, “Hey, if you need help with that, just let me know. I work for a company that makes this easier.” I emailed him and he sent me the website link and he said, “If you need help while you’re doing it, just call me. We’ll get squared away.” So it was really word of mouth. I’d heard of ZenBusiness but I didn’t ever really look into why would I need to use this service as a company because it had never occurred to me before. It was a very helpful word of mouth thing being like, “Hey, I know how to make this easier for you.” I love that. I love when that happens.
Corie: Did you actually need any help?
Sierra: Once I was going through the portal, no. That was my favorite thing, and my uncle made fun of me about it. My uncle owns his own business, and he asked me if I’d gotten all the paperwork squared away. He also offered to help me, but he filed for an LLC back in like 1979 or something like that.
Corie: That was probably one of the first ones because LLCs became available in the 1970s, so that’s really interesting.
Sierra: He filed for his first LLC business back then, and now he owns a corporation and is a very successful businessman. He’s also not a millennial. I started going through the portal, and he asked me “Hey, how’s it going?” I was like, “Well, it seems really easy. This format is very helpful. It tells me that I’m doing the right thing. It breaks everything down in very simple language.” And he was like, “Does it give you a gold star by the end of the thing?” And I was like, “No, but I would be okay with that.”
Corie: I’m going to write that down, as the user experience designer at ZenBusiness, “Give gold star.”
Sierra: Definitely. He didn’t seem to share the whole anxiety factor of filing things incorrectly. Apparently he wasn’t worried when he filed for his business back in the seventies, which I somehow still doubt.
Corie: Maybe he never had to worry about doing it wrong and then paying thousands of dollars to fix it.
Sierra: Maybe that’s a new thing or he didn’t know that was a possibility. He was kind of funny about that. I feel on ZenBusiness everything is broken down. If you have a question you can click this little box that will open up and expand on what you need to know. If you still are confused, we can pause this and go through the entire process of what you’re signing off on. That was really helpful. I read every one of them. Even if I felt like I understood it, I would go through and read it anyway because I’d rather be very certain that I understand what I’m agreeing to or not agreeing to and signing up for.
Corie: I’m glad to hear it because one thing that I’ve been working on is expanding the help content on the site. Getting it in there on every page. The fact that you actually read it, oh my gosh. One of my worries is people won’t read it, so I’m glad to hear that you did.
Sierra: I feel a lot of people using ZenBusiness probably will because that exact concept of having anxiety about not understanding is why I thought that was really helpful. This is the exact thing that I’ve had a problem with is there’s nothing on the State Department website that actually goes in great detail of what this stuff means without you searching for it.
Corie: Did you look at any other services or did you know it was going to be ZenBusiness?
Sierra: I didn’t look at anybody else. I am very much of the feeling that if you trust the person in front of you that’s telling you something, then you should just trust their opinion. So I trusted Carlos telling me that this was going to be a good service, and when I logged in everything was exactly what I was looking for. I was like, “There’s no point in me looking and researching beyond this.”
Corie: So…we should put Carlos on the sales team?
Sierra: Only if he wants to be.
Corie: You ended up picking us because of him?
Sierra: Yes, for the most part, but if I logged in and it had been confusing or something, I probably wouldn’t have. I logged on and realized that ZenBusiness has solutions to all the things that I was having a problem with.
Corie: Was there anything you really loved about ZenBusiness?
Sierra: Yes, definitely the content. I also appreciated—this sounds really goofy—but the status bar that says you’re X number of steps through the process. I also really liked that because I like knowing I’ve completed this whole section of the form. It also saved all my information. I didn’t have to worry about getting logged out and losing information, even though I completed 15 out of 16 steps. So if you need to like take a break or you have some other thing to get to, you can. I can come back to this and make sure that I’m doing everything correctly and that I’ve given myself enough time to sit down and do it in the first place. Also, on the completion of the paperwork when you log back in and there’s like all the tiles about do you need an accountant, do you need a bank account? There’s like all these other things you need as a business that you might not put on your checklist because you just don’t realize that having a CPA and a bookkeeper is really, really important. Even if you can do the math yourself, having somebody who knows tax law is really great. Even though I didn’t end up using ZenBusiness to get a bookkeeper, it was still nice to have kind of that checklist. I liked that as well. Having the “You’ve done the first step. We know there are a lot of other steps. We’re going to tell you what the other things you can do are.” So that was helpful.
Corie: I’m glad to hear that. Every time I have a user come in I end up feeling pretty good, but it’s okay because I also get the emails when everyone’s mad. So, I hear both sides. Was there anything you felt that we could have done better?
Sierra: I think the only thing I would have liked better was when you’re done submitting the paperwork, you get a set of emails that are like, “Hey, this is going through.” I don’t even know if this is possible, but if there was a way to update and say, “The State Department received your paperwork” so you know before you actually get told you’re paperwork’s all done.
Corie: Yeah, some states tell us, but with a lot of states it’s just sent and then it’s a black hole and you get it back when you get it back.
Sierra: I kind of assumed that that was probably the thing because that’s government. If there was a way to tell people, “Hey, we can’t give you any other updates” so that there’s no expectation that you’re gonna be able to tell me, “The state’s received your stuff.”
Corie: Most of our filing is digital. Not every single state, but a lot of the states are digital. So, pretty much as soon as you submit it, we have it at the state within 24 hours. We’re super fast. You go from pending to processing at the state so quickly. Our team is really good about that. I’m glad to hear you want more contact because one thing we’re really working is our emails right now. So, we’re on track.
Sierra: Yes, definitely.
Corie: Do you have any other advice that you want to give to entrepreneurs or other people starting their small business?
Sierra: Not a ton, just because I’m also really at the beginning. I just got on that start line, but I think what I’ve learned so far is that in the process of making sure you have all those other auxiliary people, like a bookkeeper and a CPA and somebody to keep track of all of your other inventory and stuff like that, if you’re not able to take care of all those things yourself, which like no one is, that it’s best to go with someone that you trust even if you don’t have a review system for them. I’ve had some people recommend to me a CPA who has five stars on Yelp but I meet them in person and they kind of give me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t go with the heebie-jeebies. I’ve had bad experiences with that in the past when booking gigs. In this process I had to hire a bookkeeper and a CPA and an inventory manager and for all three of those people I went with somebody who I knew and someone who understood that this is really, really personal to me. Starting your own small business is like your child. Work with people who respect that. As helpful as digital services are, if you have to interact with real people, you should probably interact with real people that you trust more than anything else.
Corie: I like that you changed that question to what you learned. Would you recommend other people to use ZenBusiness?
Sierra: Yes, absolutely. Especially younger business people because there is so much information out there that you could possibly try to sift through, but in using the platform y’all have all the information. It’s outlined step by step. Y’all have all the information and it’s all laid out in a really easy to read format. It’s just really simple and that’s very helpful. There’s a lot of complicated stuff going on when starting a business. So yes, absolutely. Anybody who I’ve been talking to I say, “Use them if you’re gonna start a business because they get all the paperwork taken care of and you don’t feel like you’re running blind because that’s the worst and you shouldn’t feel like that when you’re starting a business. You’re going to sink money into this. You should understand what’s going on.”
Corie: Right. So you have actually recommended us to other people! You mentioned you were just starting out, but do you think your life has changed since you started your business?
Sierra: Absolutely, yes. 150 percent completely different place. Not only because now I’m doing an album and promo and we’re shooting music videos and doing vinyl pressings and stuff like that. There’s feeling in control of the trajectory of where I’m going. When I was just performing it was week-to-week “Who’s going to book me?” It was very much a by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing, and now I have a goal, I have a trajectory, I have the capital. I have the business aspects in place to support this decision. I’m in charge of what’s going on and I’ve got the support system to make it happen.
Corie: You feel like it gives you more control?
Sierra: Yes, because now I’m Mountain Rose Productions, LLC. Suddenly I’m not just some random girl emailing; I’m a company emailing. Even if people have never heard of this company before, they understand this is a production company. They’re not just emailing me back because I’m some random girl who thinks she can sing. It just puts a level of being taken seriously into these inquiries if I ever have to book with people or if I’m getting vendors and stuff for parties. It’s really just putting that “line” right underneath it that has changed people’s responses very drastically.
Corie: That’s really cool. Are other people working with you now?
Sierra: Technically, yes. I contract out for a bookkeeper and a CPA and the person that helps me manage the parties. They basically just make sure that I’ve gotten four different kinds of alcohol and two different kinds of not alcohol and all the food, stuff like that. It sounds goofy, but it’s easier to keep track of when somebody else is reminding you, “Hey, you forgot to get Margaritas.”
Corie: Can you tell me what’s next for your business, Mountain Rose Productions?
Sierra: We have a couple of things going on. First thing is the album party, which is in a couple weeks. The next steps right after that are we’re going to start filming a music video for one of the songs and that will be done through the winter time. Then for kind of a big release at SXSW, we are trying to record two more songs and then do a vinyl press of a six-track album. I’m trying to make it like a fun colored vinyl with like the lacquer on it instead of just a black vinyl, which is always good. That’s the next six months or so is filming the video, recording two more songs, pressing the vinyl. Then doing SXSW of course, that’s most musicians like big money-making couple of weeks. Gigging every single day. I’m in promoting not only the album but also the music video so that moving into the summertime we can work on recording a full-length 12-track album and continuing to perform. I am also approaching a lot of other artists to manage all these things for them. You can pay me to get all these things done because I have resources having done my own album and now having my own video production team that I’m working with. So if somebody who has just been performing for six months wants to put out a music video for their YouTube channel, I have all the contacts for a videographer and a sound engineer and an actor. You can pay a percentage of the fee and then we’ll get your music video produced and you don’t have to work with a big label.
Corie: If someone wants to work with you, what’s the best way to get in contact with you?
Sierra: You’ll need to go to my Facebook page, Sierra Vernon. That would be the best place to get ahold of me and then we can talk about whatever your project is and how we can make it happen.
Corie: Where have you been performing recently?
Sierra: Up until two weeks ago, I hadn’t been performing at all. I was putting an album out and recording every single day so I was not performing. The next time I’m performing is for the East Austin Studio Tour.
Corie: If someone wanted to see you perform, where would they need to check to find out?
Sierra: Facebook and Instagram. We are working on getting a website to put out.
Corie: Is there anything else that you want to share with us today?
Sierra: I just want to say this is a fantastic idea. Whoever started this company, this was great because there are so many good things that people have good ideas for that they need to start a business and the State Department is super outdated. Taking that first leap of faith; it’s really, really scary. If you’re struggling with that concept, take that leap of faith, that anxiety about that first step is the worst part of the whole thing. To quote Beyoncé, “You can try 110 percent, and you may still fall flat on your face. However, if you don’t try at all, you will definitely not get anywhere.” So if you’re in that beginning stage, just go for it. ZenBusiness is super, super easy. If you do something wrong, they will help you. You’re not going to go to jail.
Corie: Awesome, thank you so much for coming in today. I really appreciate your time!
Sierra: Thank you.
Listen to Sierra Vernon’s Music:
This interview was edited for clarity, readability, and space. For full transcription, please listen to the included podcast.