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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Sharon McRill

When: September 14, 2023

Sharon McRill
Sharon McRill

In this episode, AADL Talks To Sharon McRill. Back in the 1990s, Sharon spent several years with Borders. There she served as a new media liaison when DVDs and games on CD were new technologies, interviewed celebrities, and helped build the first Border’s website. After the first round of Border’s layoffs left her wondering what to do next, she decided to start her own business helping people clean and organize, move, and more. Sharon talks about the evolution of the Betty Brigade from its early years to the thriving business it is today.    

For more information about Borders, see our digital collections

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] AMY CANTU: [MUSIC] Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:10] ELIZABETH SMITH: This is Elizabeth and in this episode, AADL talks to Sharon McRill. Back in the 1990s, Sharon spent several years with Borders where she served as a new media liaison, interviewed celebrities, and helped build the first Borders website. After the first round of borders layoffs left her wondering what to do next, she decided to start her own business helping people clean and organize, move and more. Sharon talks about the evolution of the Betty Brigade to the thriving business it is today.
  • [00:00:35] ELIZABETH SMITH: Hi, Sharon. Thank you for joining us today. We just wanted to start and ask you how you came to Ann Arbor.
  • [00:00:43] SHARON MCRILL: I came to Ann Arbor because I needed to finish my degree. I was living in Washington, DC for three years, and came back to Michigan and transferred my U of M Flint credits to Ann Arbor, and finished up my degree, and have never left Ann Arbor. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:01:04] AMY CANTU: A familiar story.
  • [00:01:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was your degree and what did you study?
  • [00:01:09] SHARON MCRILL: My degree was in general studies because I couldn't pass French. I tried three times. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:01:16] AMY CANTU: Let's talk a little bit about your Borders career. When did you start there and what was it like when you started? Can you give us a little view of the atmosphere there?
  • [00:01:25] SHARON MCRILL: Sure. First, I was working in a restaurant and decided I was really ready to not work in restaurants anymore. I decided that if I was going to get a "big girl job", then I was going to go work at Borders. I went into the store and they said, well, we don't really have anything for anybody who has zero experience in retail. I said, okay, and so then I tried the corporate offices and they said, we don't have anything. I thought, well, this is the company I want to work at. I continued my restaurant job and I started calling the HR Department at Borders every week asking them if they had a job and the HR person, her name is Kathy. I don't remember her last name, but she just started getting used to hearing from me every week and finally she called me one week and said, we have something for you. They put me in the cafe at Store One, which is currently not Store One anymore, obviously. That's where the new Knight's downtown is. But that's where I started and I was training in the cafe and making coffee and serving people, treats and all kinds of yummy stuff. Then Kathy called again and said, we actually have something in the corporate offices for you if you want it. The cafe manager was a little upset, but I did take the desk job.
  • [00:03:05] AMY CANTU: It sounds like your persistence is one of your character traits.
  • [00:03:10] SHARON MCRILL: Like a dog with a bone. [LAUGHTER] Absolutely.
  • [00:03:12] AMY CANTU: That's great.
  • [00:03:13] ELIZABETH SMITH: What year was that when you first started?
  • [00:03:15] SHARON MCRILL: It was probably around 1992, 1993, somewhere in there.
  • [00:03:19] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was the store like at that time in terms of the smaller business side and then expanding to the corporate?
  • [00:03:25] SHARON MCRILL: Well, the store was fully fledged and interestingly, the restaurant I worked in which is still in place, Red Hawk Bar and Grill, was the place of Store One. That was where Borders originated. I didn't know that when I was working at Red Hawk, and so I was already working at Borders when I was at Red Hawk and then I transitioned into Store One for about a week and then I moved over into Tally Hall, which now is no longer, I mean, there's corporations in there, but Borders took up all of it. The entire basement of Tally Hall was this huge cube maze, and so when you came either down in the elevator or walked down the stairs, you would see probably 250 or 300 cubes. Then the perimeter of it was offices. That's where the managers sat. My desk, when I first came down, was right at the bottom of the stairs. I was hired to be a new media liaison.
  • [00:04:34] AMY CANTU: What was that? What were your job duties? [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:04:37] SHARON MCRILL: Well, I didn't even know when I hired in. The lady who hired me, Connie Harrison, she said, yes, you're going to be a vendor liaison. I was like, what is a vendor liaison? Well, that is the person who works with the buyers to make sure that as a buyer needs product for the stores they would place purchase orders. The purchase orders would then be looked at by a second person to make sure that everything looked okay. Then those orders would be released to whatever publisher or supplier and then those orders would come in. Then the vendor liaison would also make sure that Borders was cutting checks in a timely way to make sure that those vendors were getting paid. If anything happened, like if a truck tipped over on the highway and a shipment got delayed, the vendor liaison would be communicating with that store to say, hey, your shipment is delayed or if there was an author event, there might be drop ships directly from the publisher or from the distribution center directly into the store and we would be communicating with the store to make sure all of that happened.
  • [00:05:53] ELIZABETH SMITH: How long did you work at that position and what came next?
  • [00:05:56] SHARON MCRILL: I started with new media vendor liaison and I was like, what is new media? Well, it was games on CD. That's how long ago this was. A long time ago. There was one game buyer, Bill Steinmetz, and then Connie was his boss and Connie was my boss too. The three of us formed this little pod of games and talking about games. I didn't know anything about online games, but that wasn't my job. I didn't need to know. From there I became the vendor liaison for video. At that time, DVD was an emerging technology. That's how long ago that was and so it was very exciting because everything was on VHS, but it was also just newly coming out on DVD. I started working with the two video buyers and then their boss and I was their vendor liaison or their VL. There was this whole subculture of vendor liaisons for the people who did media, so the music buyers and the game and video buyers. Then there were what were called Publisher Liaisons, or PLs, for the book buyers. All of these were just support systems for all the buyers.
  • [00:07:22] AMY CANTU: You also worked on the website?
  • [00:07:25] SHARON MCRILL: I did.
  • [00:07:25] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:07:28] SHARON MCRILL: Yeah. I got really good at my vendor liaison job and at the end of it, I was managing the largest account that handled music and video, Warner Elektra Atlantic or WEA, and it was a multi million dollar account and that was my account to manage as well as a bunch of little ones. I was really good at it and this other thing came up and Borders was launching a website and we were really late to the game in terms of launching the website. I was one of five original people to be chosen to handle the website and so, because I was already working in the video arena, my job was to write content or blurbs about movies and make sure that they were on the website, and then we were matching. Whatever is being promoted in the stores on the end caps, we would also match that on the website because the publishers or the vendors were paying for that space in the stores and so we could help support that with the website. But the cool part of my job, the really awesome part of my job was that because DVD was an emerging technology, the studios were all behind re-promoting all of these movies that were moving from VHS to DVD. They gathered up all of these celebrities to help promote these DVD's, because DVD's have tracks of a director commentary or an actor commentary. Whoever was supporting the release of that particular DVD, the studio would be offering interviews. I was the person who got to interview all the celebrities, and producers, and directors and composers, and all kinds of really cool people in the movie industry.
  • [00:09:21] AMY CANTU: Wow. That would be nice.
  • [00:09:23] SHARON MCRILL: Yeah.
  • [00:09:24] ELIZABETH SMITH: Did you get to travel at all for that or was it all in Ann Arbor?
  • [00:09:27] SHARON MCRILL: Oh no, it was in my cube. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:09:29] ELIZABETH SMITH: Glamorous.
  • [00:09:31] SHARON MCRILL: So glamorous. But I felt really lucky because I had a TV in my cube because my job was to watch a bunch of movies from whatever personality I happen to be interviewing, and I would probably do two or three interviews a week. I would have to watch between seven and 10 movies a week. People say, wow, that sounds like fun, but it actually becomes a lot of work. You end up having to watch a movie and take notes and make sure that you're asking questions that they haven't heard before.
  • [00:10:09] AMY CANTU: This is really interesting. I don't think most people would have thought that that was part of a job duty at Borders at the time. I'm just imagining that this is not something most people knew. What other types of not just what you did, but what other types of work might we not have expected there to be happening both at the corporate level and at the store?
  • [00:10:32] SHARON MCRILL: I don't know that I can really speak to that because I was in my own little Borders.com group. I was one of five original people that were chosen for the website, and we grew it to 70 people. Over the course of about 2.5- 3.5 years we did a lot, and we got great attention and we won some awards and it was really exciting. The culmination of this is that they sold the website to Amazon and all of us were let go.
  • [00:11:09] ELIZABETH SMITH: When that happened, did you know that it was coming or was it really sudden and unexpected?
  • [00:11:14] SHARON MCRILL: It was sudden and unexpected. However, we knew there was a meeting and someone internally leaked it to MSNBC, and we found out the night before.
  • [00:11:27] AMY CANTU: What year was this, roughly?
  • [00:11:29] SHARON MCRILL: That was probably near the end of the '90s.
  • [00:11:33] ELIZABETH SMITH: What happened when Borders closed its doors?
  • [00:11:35] SHARON MCRILL: Well, we were all really devastated. There was this huge group of people that just came together, people who had worked at Borders, in stores, people who had worked in the corporate offices, even people who had moved on like me. It just became this giant email group of people who could just communicate with each other. It was really heart-warming to know that we were still a family in some capacity.
  • [00:12:06] ELIZABETH SMITH: You were saying something about the workshops that were held before we were recording?
  • [00:12:16] SHARON MCRILL: When I got laid off, there was a lot of support and at the end there was almost none. There was no severance packages. It was just good luck and goodbye and that was really sad. But some of the staff members got together and did some workshops, and because I was in business, I got asked to come and talk about how to interview people and how to network. Even simple things like how to give a proper handshake and how to have eye contact and how to follow up. These folks had been in their jobs for many many years, and they just didn't know this stuff. That was really gratifying to know that I got to help people as a former Borders alum.
  • [00:13:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: And you find that the Borders employees still communicate quite a lot?
  • [00:13:15] SHARON MCRILL: Yes. Some people have left that group, some people have passed away, some people still stick around in there.
  • [00:13:23] ELIZABETH SMITH: That was the end of your career at Borders?
  • [00:13:25] SHARON MCRILL: It was the end of my career at Borders, but it certainly wasn't the end of my relationships at Borders. I still have good friends, and interestingly, a whole bunch of clients from Borders, from where I started my next iteration. But I will say that one of the cool things and something that will happen when I no longer own my business is because Borders doesn't exist anymore, I still have all of the tapes of the celebrities and I have the paper copies of all the transcriptions of every interview I did. I did more than 250 interviews with different celebrities. Now, I own them because Borders doesn't exist anymore, so I can write a book about it.
  • [00:14:11] AMY CANTU: Wow. Before we talk about the next phase of your career, can you just give us a little sense of where you think in Borders fit, in terms of the book culture and the corporation at the time, what was the general feeling among staff when it all fell apart?
  • [00:14:35] SHARON MCRILL: Borders.com and selling it off was in a very early round of layoffs. We were laid off and let go 10 years before Borders ended. The HR department and the leadership team in general actually took very very good care of us. We were very lucky, we got severance packages, we were helped by HR to do interviews. The HR reached out to different corporations within a 60-mile radius to help us find new positions. They really went over and above to help us because they recognized that none of us chose for the corporation to sell our jobs to Amazon, and Amazon didn't want us. They just wanted to take all that content that we had created, and it was tons of content, blurbs, and interviews and all stuff, including stuff that had been uploaded and downloaded from publishers and clips of music and all different stuff, like every aspect of content. That's what they really wanted was the content.
  • [00:15:55] ELIZABETH SMITH: Do you have a most memorable moment from your time at Borders?
  • [00:16:00] SHARON MCRILL: Many memorable moments. Because of Borders, I have met two of the Brady brunch and a third one just in my regular life, and that was really cool. I have a bunch of signed memorabilia or not memorabilia, but like books and music and movie posters and things like that. That was really really cool. But I would say the thing that is most memorable to me is that I have made some lifelong friends, people who weren't in my life before Borders, but continue to be in my life now.
  • [00:16:38] AMY CANTU: Moving on to the next phase of your career, can you tell us how you felt after you left and how long it took you to then reground yourself?
  • [00:16:48] SHARON MCRILL: It was devastating. It was really really hard because they sold our jobs, but then they said, but if you stick around, we'll give you the severance package, and it was a substantial severance package. Many people just stuck around, but there was nothing for us to do. There was no job, there was no anything. We would sit in our cubes, and we'd come into work every day and sit in our cubes and job hunt. It was very strange. What was most interesting is that people that I thought were my friends stopped talking to me entirely. People who I hardly talk to really were very kind and very like I know you're leaving and is there anything I can do. That was really interesting. I expected the people that I interacted with every day would be more supportive, and many of them stepped completely away from me. I wasn't the only one that this happened to.
  • [00:17:53] AMY CANTU: Why do you think that happened?
  • [00:17:55] SHARON MCRILL: I think it's a form of grief. I think that people don't necessarily know how to separate from people sometimes. That's just my personal opinion, it could be, maybe that they just couldn't stand me or forget to.
  • [00:18:11] AMY CANTU: Well, but it was hard for you though.
  • [00:18:13] SHARON MCRILL: It was hard. Then I got a job and working for a corporation, calling on restaurants, going and selling them restaurant supplies, food, canned food, fresh food, napkins, straws, things like that. I really hated that job. I hated it, it was miserable. Then, I got a job working for a company that I thought was going to be similar to Borders. I was writing content, and I was helping catalog large groups of media saying, well this movie is horror and comedy and things like that. Also, I didn't like that job. I wondered if I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole. During all of this process, one of my friends who is now in advertising, but she was also at Borders.com, and she left before any of the layoffs happened, she said, what are you doing with your time? I said, well, I'm sitting around trying to figure stuff out. She said, well, could you help me? I'm moving, could you help me pack? My mom called me and said, hey, could you come clear out that spare room where I can't even open the door? That's how my current business started. That was 20 years ago this year.
  • [00:19:47] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was that transition like going to being a business owner from the corporate world?
  • [00:19:52] SHARON MCRILL: It was shock. The weird part was that my grandparents and my parents both owned their own businesses, and I thought, I'm going to be able to do this. I've grown up in an entrepreneurial environment, and I did not know shit.
  • [00:20:14] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was that learning curve like?
  • [00:20:15] SHARON MCRILL: It was huge. I didn't know what a chamber of Commerce was, I didn't know what they did, I didn't know what networking was. I didn't know about taxes. My taxes had always been deducted from my checks. I didn't know that as a business owner, I needed to pay taxes. All of these things were just completely foreign to me.
  • [00:20:40] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit then how you went from cleaning out your friend's or your family's rooms to thinking, I can do this for a living. How did that and we're talking about the Betty Brigade, we should say. Can you tell us how that came about?
  • [00:20:59] SHARON MCRILL: Sure. When I was in corporate life and working at Borders, I just kept thinking. If I had somebody for just like a couple hours a week, someone to pick up my groceries, this is before groceries delivered. Someone who could meet the repair person at my house to fix the dishwasher, someone who could just run those errands and take care of those things that I can't get to because it just feels like my weekend is completely full doing other stuff and I just couldn't keep up. That was really the thought behind starting my company and just having someone who just was a personal assistant for a couple hours a week and I knew that that wasn't sustainable. But I did know that if you got enough people to book in, you could make that sustainable. That's what I did. I joined the Chamber of Commerce. I jumped into a couple of networking groups. I started promoting the business but before I did that, I was miserable on the couch like curled up in a ball watching Oprah, feeling sorry for myself and she had one of those live your best life shows. It was a bunch of people who had started their own businesses. There was some book by a guy named Po Bronson, and it was about, you know living your best life and these people were telling their stories and I was like, well, I'm at least as smart as those people, I can do this. I made a list of here's what I'm good at and here's what I want to do. Those are mutually exclusive lists, they're not the same. I looked at, well, what could I do with this and my friend who had me help her move, we sat down and on a couple pieces of paper, over a bottle of wine, started figuring this out and what it would look like.
  • [00:23:00] ELIZABETH SMITH: Now your business has grown significantly?
  • [00:23:02] SHARON MCRILL: It has.
  • [00:23:03] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was that like over the years?
  • [00:23:05] SHARON MCRILL: Well, it's still growing. Starting off, of course, it was my desk, and my phone, and one computer and my first employee, I gave myself a year to make the business work. If it didn't work in a year, I was going to go get another corporate job because I had the severance package. I was on unemployment and I was like, let's make this work. At the 11 month mark, I hired my first employee. I had too much business at the 11 month mark. The funny part was that I hired a client, this lady hired me to do pet care and at that time we did pet care, we no longer do, but she hired me to take care of her cats when she traveled and she had just moved here and was a single mom and she said, I don't want a full time job. She had been an administrative assistant. I said, well, I really need an administrative assistant and I said, but I can only afford five hours a week and she said that's perfect. I thought, really, who wants to work five hours a week? But this lady did, and she eventually became my office manager and was working full time by the time she left.
  • [00:24:27] AMY CANTU: When was the moment that you knew okay, I've made it this is working. Right at that 11th month? Or was it a longer? When did you let yourself celebrate?
  • [00:24:41] SHARON MCRILL: I think it was when I started paying myself, when the business started doing more than break even. That was probably at about 3.5 or four years in. It was really a long time before we got profitable and even now, there are times when it's like, what am I doing? We're 20 years in. I have about 15 employees. They have healthcare and they have benefits and they have paid time off and there's an infrastructure and there's growth and there's marketing and there's, big, fancy website and all those things that cost money.
  • [00:25:32] ELIZABETH SMITH: I'm curious about the name Betty Brigade and where that came from.
  • [00:25:36] SHARON MCRILL: When we started, we were called my Gal Friday and a Gal Friday is somebody who just runs your errands. About 3.5 or four years in right about the time we started to get profitable, I got the cease and desist letter from a company that had hired a Madison Avenue law firm, and they were suing companies that had the name Gal Friday because they were trying to create a franchise. I get this letter and I remember that day very clearly. I opened this FedEx package. It had one page in it and it just said cease and desist from using this name and I freaked out. I wanted to throw up. I was so upset, here I am this little company, like I think I had maybe three employees at that time and I was just devastated. Well, weirdly and maybe not weirdly, maybe this is the way the world works. But one of the women who works with me, her name was Adrian, her husband was a business attorney that helped people with patents and registration and she said you need to talk to Mike and I said, okay. She calls her husband. I go over there that afternoon and said, I don't know what to do and he said, well, you have two choices. You can keep your name and litigate or you can change your name and move on with your life. What do you want to do? I said can I think about it and he said, yeah, but you don't have an unlimited amount of time. What changing your name means is a new website, all new collateral, everything that you have created, including goodwill in the community goes away because people no longer know the name that you are known by. What we did was we had a public contest to rename the company. It was in The Observer, it was in the Ann Arbor News. We put it out all over the place and we got submissions, just crazy submissions from all over the place and what people won was eight free hours of organizing the person who won. That was something that I was like, we can do this, and it got promoted everywhere and we got about, I would say about 4 to 500 submissions.
  • [00:28:21] SHARON MCRILL: From then we were able to narrow it down and decide. I mean, there were a bunch that were like, your right hand or your left hand, and I'm like, I don't want to be somebody's hand. That's weird. But there were really funny ones. The funniest one I thought was errand bitches but of course, that's not going to work with our older clientele. There's going to be fired. No. That's how Betty Brigade came about and at that point, before we announced the name, that's when we registered it. We got the Circle R. We made sure that we had the website, the.com, the.org, all of the dots. We created a phone number that had Betty in the name. We went through the whole roster of how do we protect the company in a way that feels very secure and that is how Betty Brigade was born.
  • [00:29:27] AMY CANTU: That sounds like a pretty smart marketing campaign too. You must have picked up a few clients through that.
  • [00:29:32] SHARON MCRILL: We did. But I get asked all the time, well, why Betty Brigade? Why not Sharon Brigade? Well, you're not going to remember Sharon Brigade. Also Betty is slang for a woman. The name Betty has come through time and you both are nodding, but people don't know this. You of course know this because you work in a library. But most people don't know how the name Betty has transpired through time. We've actually used that as a lot of our social media posting.
  • [00:30:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: Do you have any favorite moments from your career at Betty Brigade?
  • [00:30:12] SHARON MCRILL: Many. I want to tell you about one. This week though, my operations manager had to be out of town and she was helping prep a condo for sale. That means clearing clutter, putting things away, because the pictures were going to be taken today, which is Thursday. She messaged me on Tuesday and said, can you go over there on Thursday and and put the stuff away. I said, no, I'm really busy on Thursday. She said, well, I don't know what to do, nobody's available. I said, well, I can go tonight, meaning Wednesday night last night. She said, sure. I go over and I'm putting this stuff away and the lady whose conduit is died and her brother hired us to help clear it out because he lives out of town and the lady who died, sister in law, was a lady named Bernice. Bernice showed up unexpectedly while I was there putting things in cupboards just so that they could take these pictures. Bernice is a very young, 95-year old. Really with it, I was like, cool. She introduced herself and she said, I can't lift this basket, my arthritis is really flaring up. I said, well, let me help you. I helped her load it in her car and she said, my car is full because I've been throwing stuff in my car all week to get it out of the condo. I was like, it's okay. We're going to organize your car. Don't worry about it, I'll get the stuff in, so I got all the stuff in her car and took away a couple boxes of shredding that she couldn't lift. She said, thank you so much. I am super grateful. I'm just not sure how I'm going to get all this out of my car. She was kind of laughing about it and I said, well, where do you live, Bernice? This is like at 5:30 at night. She said, I live two miles away and I said, well, Bernice, I'm going to follow you over to your house and I'm going to unload your car. She said, you don't have to do that. I said, well, Bernice, how are you going to do it? She said, well, I've been praying about that all day. I said, well, I'm going to do that for you. I followed her over and unloaded her entire car and it took over an hour. There was a lot of stuff. What I didn't know is Bernice is a nun. She had literally been praying about this all day. What she told me at the end was, I've been praying and I didn't know how I was going to get my car unloaded. I showed up at the condo and I saw your truck and I thought, I don't want to bother them. They're in there working. She said, I started to drive away and my sister in law who passed, I heard her say, go back. She said, so I went back and I came in and you were the person to help me. She said, I'm putting you at the top of my prayer list. When a nun puts you at the top of their prayer list, that's a pretty flip and good day.
  • [00:33:42] AMY CANTU: It's a good day.
  • [00:33:44] SHARON MCRILL: That's the thing that I was like, that just made my whole week.
  • [00:33:49] AMY CANTU: That's wonderful. You probably have a lot of stories like that.
  • [00:33:52] SHARON MCRILL: I do and I have a lot of weird stories that I'm not going to tell you during this podcast that of weird stuff we have found.
  • [00:34:02] AMY CANTU: I'm sure.
  • [00:34:02] SHARON MCRILL: A whole bunch.
  • [00:34:05] AMY CANTU: What are you most proud of?
  • [00:34:07] SHARON MCRILL: I am most proud of my evolution as a business owner. I really did think I knew what I was doing when I started and I had no clue. I wouldn't say that I have all the clues now, I certainly wouldn't. But I would say that I am my staff, I'm kind of our clients. That wasn't as where my head was. When you run a business, sometimes things don't come together or things go sideways in ways that you can't anticipate. Being a business owner is difficult much of the time and there are good things about it, but there are really had terrible things about it. I would say that I'm most proud of that evolution.
  • [00:35:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.