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Calculated Risks

by Mary LeClair

Sixteen years ago, Sabrina Horn '83 took a few weeks off from her senior management position at a San Francisco public relations firm to write a business plan for a strategic communications company that she had long intended to launch. While on this short sabbatical, she received a call from a leading business software company that wanted her to do some consulting work.

"It had always been in my bloodstream to be entrepreneurial and take calculated risks, but that was when the light bulb went off and I was on my own," says Horn, founder, president and chief executive officer of Horn Group, Inc., a full-service communications firm that specializes in public relations and digital marketing for start-up and Fortune 1000 technology companies.

The timing for launching a business that serves the enterprise software industry couldn't have been better. It was 1991, the systems software market was mature and applications software was growing at an impressive pace. That was the very industry Horn wanted to serve.

Today, the communications firm continues to flourish, with 50 employees and offices in New York City, San Francisco and Boston, and satellite operations in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. The company has expanded into the telecom and consumer technology markets, as well as digital media companies and venture capital firms. The agency also recently went international with the introduction of the Constella Network, comprised of 15 independent communications agencies in 20 countries, which extends the company's client roster into the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Horn Group's success has been marked by record achievements and industry awards, including the Web Marketing Association's 2006 Web Award for site redesign and the prestigious 2006 Bell Ringer Merit Award for best business-to-business product publicity campaign.

Horn has had a passion to be an entrepreneur in the communications industry since she was a student at William Smith. The American studies major chose the field because it allowed easy access to nearly any discipline. She recalls loving demographics and coming to understand how and why people buy certain products.

"My education at William Smith taught me how to think and to value intellectual curiosity," says Horn. "It was the basis for being comfortable with change and that has parlayed into running my own business." Horn also had received advice and encouragement from her parents, both of whom are entrepreneurs. "I was raised to make my own destiny," she says.

Horn earned a master's degree in public relations from Boston University and started in the field by rising through the ranks at two public relations agencies. Watching as talented professionals cycled through PR firms, she learned what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. "When I started my business, I wanted people to stay and build a career," she says. "It was something that was sorely lacking, and it was an opportunity for me to be different."

It has been a point of difference she is willing to pay for to achieve. Horn has encouraged loyalty and fostered lower employee turnover through an impressive benefits package that offers sizable raises for each year of service, bonuses for bringing in new business, profit sharing and paid sabbaticals for employees who have been with the company more than five years, in addition to four weeks vacation.

Horn attributes much of her success to these retention efforts. She has found that a seasoned staff allows for increased quality and consistency. Simply, clients are better taken care of, which leads to a better business overall.

From the beginning, these practices have been noticed by the industry. In 1997, Horn was named to the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame, and in 1999, she was named Best Employer in the U.S. by Working Woman magazine. She also has been recognized as one of the PR industry's most successful entrepreneurs by Inside PR magazine and appointed to serve on the board of directors for the Software and Information Industry Association.

Currently, Horn spends most of her time focusing on business development and establishing the long-term vision for the company.

Amid it all, she is also the mother of two girls ages five and eight.

Her outlook for this year: "It might sound a bit boring but I plan on doing more of the same and doing it well. We have planted all the right seeds and they have sprouted. This year is the year they grow tall and strong."