And built a million-dollar company while putting life first.

How Crystalee Beck founded Comma Copywriters

And built a million-dollar company while putting life first.

The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.

Leading up to entrepreneurship, my resume is admittedly scattered. My span of “mini careers” included years as a flight attendant, a corporate marketer, and an adjunct instructor at a state university. In hindsight, each professional chapter taught me lessons that helped me found and build Comma Copywriters, one of Utah’s fastest-growing companies.

When I started a business, I felt I’d found my professional home. Seven years later, I’ve now worked for myself longer than any other job I’ve had—and I still like my boss! I’m typing with my giggly baby on my lap, which feels fitting since Comma wouldn’t exist without my children. Motherhood gave me the courage to start and build a business that helps my 43-person team and me “put life first” as we continue to grow. Needless to say, I approve of all baby cameos.

Flying high and wanting to write for a living

I was in the first class to graduate post-recession. I donned my Brigham Young University cap and gown in April 2009 and walked right into a tough job market. I finished my communication degree with marketable experience from four internships. Yet, after applying for more than 60 jobs, I only had a giant pile of rejections.

I finally landed a role at SkyWest Airlines as a content developer for inflight training. Although I had flight benefits (wee!), spending my 9-to-5 in a cubicle meant I had little time to use them. After about eight months, I left the office to fly as a flight attendant. By that time, I was engaged, and my fiancé and I both planned for children. But first, I was motivated by maps. My wanderlust led me to check off all 50 states while I was still age 25, thanks to a whirlwind weekend in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Working hundreds of flights taught me I could endure long hours, manage difficult situations and connect with a variety of people. I once served the legendary Robert Redford on his way back to SLC from LAX. “Have you ever been to Sundance? You look familiar,” he asked me. In a rare-for-me flash of wit, I smiled and said, “You look familiar to me, too, Mr. Redford.”

After serving peanuts, pretzels and cookies, I spent my sky time writing in the galley. I always brought a notebook to jot down stories. Putting words together made me feel alive, and at 30,000 feet, I decided I wanted to get paid to write. I pictured getting a master’s degree and a professional writing job. Starting a business wasn’t even on my radar.

Preparing to start a business (without knowing it yet)

Eventually, I was hired as a marketing writer at MarketStar, a global marketing and sales company headquartered in Ogden, Utah. I wrote and edited content for the world’s brightest tech brands. And I was getting paid for it! As I grew in the company, I ghostwrote the CEO’s update and worked closely with the founder, Alan Hall, in preparation for MarketStar’s 25th anniversary gala (which later inspired the birthday bash at my own company). Those years were a critical springboard in skill growth and building professional relationships.

During my corporate years, I simultaneously attended Weber State University to earn a master’s degree in professional communication. I’d seen firsthand how managerial gratitude made an impact on employee morale. I researched what employees want from their managers for my graduate thesis, which later won a research award and was published in Corporate Communications: An International Journal.

My findings indicated most employees prefer verbal one-on-one gratitude, even over money. “Thank you” is free! (To avoid a net-negative impact, the four rules of workplace gratitude are to be specific, make it personal, be timely and match the perceived effort.) I felt passionate about improving workplace experiences but had no idea I’d carry those appreciation practices into leading my own business someday. 

A mother’s promise and creating my own ladder

My husband and I welcomed our first baby in 2014, the same semester we both earned master’s degrees. I was climbing the corporate ladder by day and teaching a class at Weber State as an adjunct by night, squeezing in family moments. 

Being our family’s breadwinner had become burdensome to me. My baby was my top priority, but a 40-hour workweek didn’t give me the time I wanted with her, and I was already expecting our second child. We planned for my husband to take the financial baton after graduation, but that took longer than anticipated.

As we struggled to find a solution, I was let go as part of a widespread company layoff. This was the unexpected answer to my prayers, a gift to have more time with our girl. 

The year after I lost my job, however, was difficult. Months passed. My husband still wasn’t employed, and we lived on my unemployment checks. As my baby belly grew, the relief from leaving my full-time job turned to financial fear and frustration. I’d felt on top of the world a year before, rocking my education and a corporate job. But with one baby at home and another on the way, I felt humbled and vulnerable, unsure how we’d find our way again. 

And built a million-dollar company while putting life first.

My baby’s arrival showed me something in myself I didn’t know was there. When my son was born, I whispered a promise to him in the hospital bed: “I’m going to be there for you, and I’m going to be me too.” I refused to miss his childhood. That moment was the start of “creating my own ladder” (in lieu of the corporate ladder)—combining motherhood and making money in ways that fulfill me. 

Six months later, I was ready to work. Although my husband was employed, our financial pinch had embedded a deep desire in me to never feel that money-tight again. No job offered the flexibility or part-time work I needed with two babies under two, so in early 2016, I got a business license. Thinking big, I wrote in my journal that I planned to build a million-dollar business. I had no idea how to get there but believed it was possible.

Playing in the sandbox and chocolate motivation

Those first couple of years were my business “sandbox” time, playing with whatever projects I could get paid to do. I consulted on corporate anniversaries, oversaw graphic design projects and welcomed a multi-year biography project. 

I’ll forever treasure writing “Joyce’s Boy: The Life and Times of Alan E. Hall,” the biography of serial entrepreneur and MarketStar founder Alan Hall. Writing Alan’s story changed mine. He generously shared his biggest business lessons. He taught me the philosophy behind his service-based business that has employed thousands of people over three decades: “You take care of your team. Your team takes care of your clients. Then your clients take care of you.” 

I was eager to spin up other projects. Over time, my persistence in reaching out to my network paid off with more client inquiries than I could handle. I hired a few freelance writer friends to help meet client deadlines. They wrote. I edited and managed client relationships. While some friends did great, others weren’t as reliable. I quickly learned what worked and didn’t work for me.

I made lots of rookie business mistakes: overcommitting, forgetting to send invoices, avoiding difficult conversations, mismanaging expectations and (gasp!) misspelling a company’s name on a proposal. I learned from those stumbles and moved forward, knowing I’d make new mistakes.

In 2017, the first full calendar year I was in business, I bought myself a 100 Grand chocolate bar and put it where I could see it on my desk. I was determined to pass $100,000 in annual revenue and kept my eye on the candy prize. In the third week of December that year, I hit the goal in the nick of time.

Rebranding to Comma and passing off hats

By 2019, we had nine team members, a few big brands for clients and clarity in our service offering. It took time and maturity to commit to only offering writing and editing services. I started turning down projects that weren’t the best fit for my team and focused on our zone of genius. 

At Comma, we save time for smart marketers. We write high-quality marketing content for remarkable brands, including blog posts, emails, white papers, eBooks, product descriptions and web content. I’ve learned that, especially in service-based businesses, working in your specialty makes scaling possible. 

I started with a vanilla placeholder name for a business license, and it took me three years to rebrand. Picking the right name felt like a lot of pressure. I wanted our brand to embody excellence in writing, be brief, easy to say and simple to spell. The name was right in front of me all along, as the letters for “comma” are found in the word “communication.” 

Comma really started to hit our stride as a company after our rebrand. I hired outsourced lead generation support so I could focus on sales calls. From there, we doubled revenue three years in a row. 

This kind of growth has required me to reinvent myself and hand off some “hats” I’ve worn along the way. At Comma, I’ve worked as a writer, editor, accountant, payroll processor, project manager, client success manager, team support manager, business development rep…the list goes on. Over time, I’ve delegated each of these roles. (Thank you, writers, editors, Erika, Camille, Sarah, Paige and Lisa.) 

Business ownership brings my weaknesses to the forefront. I lean into my strengths, but no one can be good at everything. I’ve often asked for help from those with expertise or perspective I’m missing. I continue to learn from mentors and groups of fellow business owners, like my rad forum in the Entrepreneurs’ Organization

Life-first freedom, bucket lists and passing it forward

Humans are so much more than how we make money. Our professions are merely one aspect of our identities, a choice in how we spend our time and life energy. A Pew Research Center report published in March found only 51 percent of American workers who are not self-employed are very satisfied with their job overall. After being laid off in 2015, I saw the mirage of “work-life balance” as not only unattainable but backward. Instead, I put life first. I believe winning in business is tied to helping your team win in their lives. 

"Being a business owner has dramatically changed my life because I realize how much we can shape our future. By knowing what we want, believing it’s possible and being committed—usually for years, because the best things take time—even our deepest desires can become a reality."

And built a million-dollar company while putting life first.

I’ve woven this philosophy into my business. At our 2021 Comma Retreat, I announced our official company values:

Freedom: Life first!

Accountability: Show up, own your work.

Humility: Work as a team, no egos.

Curiosity: Keep learning and growing.

Care: Put your heart into it.

We put life first with flexible remote schedules, part-time options and minimal meetings. I want to give our writers as much freedom and flexibility as possible. Based in 20 different states, our team chooses where they work, when they work and what projects they work on. We just ask that their pieces are written well and delivered on time. I’ve learned when you support people with the working conditions they want, they can deliver their best work. 

We support our team’s life goals. We invite all new Comma team members to write their own 50-item bucket list. (This idea is directly inspired by You Need a Budget. I’m a huge fan of how Jesse Mecham leads people.) Our Bucket List Grant program offers $1,000 grants for team members to check off their life goals. One team member went to Disneyland. Another bought a secondhand dream camper. A third finally used his passport to taste gelato in Italy. Those are some of my favorite checks to write.

Additionally, our Comma Cares program is our way of passing it forward. I believe every organization has the opportunity and responsibility to lift others. For each new client we work with, Comma Copywriters sponsors education for one girl through our nonprofit partner, Kurandza

“Two-comma” company and ChatGPT

I never forgot the big goal I wrote in my journal, even though there were moments it felt monumentally far away. When I learned only 4.2 percent of American women-owned firms have annual revenues of $1 million or more, I was already determined to be one of them. If it’s possible for some, why not me?

During our first five years in business, we built a reputation for quality. We had a pipeline of referral-based clients and took excellent care of them. Going into the sixth year, I set a goal with my team that 2022 would be Comma’s first “two-comma” year ($1M in revenue). And we did it, delivering thousands of pieces of high-quality content to our clients.

Comma wasn’t the first woman-owned company to hit the $1,000,000 revenue milestone, and it definitely won’t be the last. The reason I agreed to my recent feature in Forbes was so other mothers could see what’s possible for them, too. 

Being a business owner has dramatically changed my life because I realize how much we can shape our future. By knowing what we want, believing it’s possible and being committedusually for years, because the best things take timeeven our deepest desires can become a reality. I am committed, through my work with The Mama Ladder® and the HIGH FIVE Grant for Moms, to change statistics one business mama at a time.

After wrapping up last year on a high note, 2023 kicked off with Comma’s biggest challenge so far: ChatGPT and the explosion of AI content tools. Seeing constant news updates about AI writing honestly put me in a panic for a solid month, but then I realized I didn’t need to face this change alone. I’ve built a smart team. Together, we’re going further than we could on our own.

My team and I are putting a lot of energy into navigating this disruption in the content marketing world. We’ve completed an internal AI pilot, published a transparency statement and shared our own stance on what AI means for content marketers in our new eBook. We’re facing the future with confidence, knowing there will be changes in the coming years but still room for talented writers to polish content worth reading.

Growing babies and business

As exciting as it was to pass the million-dollar annual revenue mark last year, I’m even more proud of how my team and I got there. I haven’t forgotten why I started. Nothing can stop a determined mother—or even better, a team of mothers! I let my team know they can be a parent, they can be a professional, and they are welcome to bring their whole self to the table. (We value everyone on our team. Not everyone at Comma has children, and I respect that. Currently, 93 percent of our team members are women.)

In a four-month span between 2021 and 2022, four out of seven people on our leadership team welcomed new babies, including me with my fourth child. We supported each other with our respective maternity leaves, honoring time to heal and be there for our families. And while the four of us Comma mamas missed sleep, the business didn’t miss a beat. When you put life first, business works out.

Between diapers and deadlines, I spend a lot of quality time with my kids and have no regrets about the past seven years. The intersection of motherhood and entrepreneurship stretches me, allows me to open doors for others and brings me a lot of joy.

I’ve kept that promise to my baby: I’m raising my children alongside my life-first business, and there are very real correlations between the two. Both businesses and babies need attention, direction and care. Just like I seek to raise independent souls who will do good in the world, I’ve built Comma with the goal of having its impact be far bigger than mine.

Crystalee Beck, MPC, is a wife, mama of four cute mess makers, an award-winning speaker and the founder of Comma Copywriters. After leaving the corporate ladder and determined to be present with her kids, she created her own ladder in 2016. Comma Copywriters has been named one of the fastest-growing companies in Utah two years in a row. Comma has also been recognized by the Utah Governor’s Office as one of 100 Companies Championing Women. Her 43-person team supports clients like Autodesk, BambooHR, Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and many more world-class brands. She supports women at the intersection of motherhood and entrepreneurship through The Mama Ladder and co-hosts the HIGH FIVE Grant for Moms.