CHASING THE DREAM: MY ADVENTURES AS A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER.
Have you ever thought, “I’m tired of all this BS. I’m gonna quit, and start my own business!” Of course you have. Everyone has. But how many of us actually do it? Well I did it, and here’s what I learned.
After spending my whole career as an ad agency creative, I had reached a tipping point. I was starting to lose my passion. Too many endless meetings. Too many people with the power to say NO, but no power to say YES. Too many corporate mergers. Too much time away from family. And on and on. It was time for a change.
But change to what? Well, I’ve always been interested in industrial design, and in particular, furniture design. That’s it — I was going to start designing furniture. But how? I had no experience as a woodworker, or upholsterer. Was I nuts thinking I could pull this off? After much soul-searching, research, writing and rewriting a business plan, I came to the conclusion that the only way to make it work was to find an existing business, then ease my way into it. My wife and I found what seemed to be the perfect match — a well-established upholstery business complete with a group of highly-skilled craftsmen. They mostly did re-upholstery and restoration of antique furniture, but they also did do some custom furniture work, and I could run with that.
The plan was that with a steady flow of re-upholstery work to pay the bills, I could devote my time to developing relationships with interior designers and architectural firms to design and build luxury furniture for their clients.
Eventually this turned out to be a good strategy, but it didn’t start out that way. The one thing I didn’t plan on was that the economy was about to tank — big time. Boom!, just like that, we were in the middle of the worst economic free-fall since the Great Depression. Re-upholstery work slowed to a crawl, and orders for new custom-built furniture ground to a halt.
1ST LESSON LEARNED: ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN FOR WHEN THINGS DON’T GO ACCORDING TO PLAN.
We had sunk pretty much every bit of savings we had into this venture. So, what now?
2ND LESSON LEARNED: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE TWICE AS MUCH WORKING CAPITAL AS YOU THINK YOU COULD POSIBLY EVER NEED.
Things looked pretty bleak, but I’m no quitter, so I was determined to ride it out.
3RD LESSON LEARNED: SOMETIMES THE PRUDENT THING IS TO THROW IN THE TOWEL.
Too stubborn or too stupid to know better, I pushed forward. I had to find ways to cut costs without losing my amazing craftsmen. I cut everyone’s hours so I wouldn’t have to lay anyone off. I cut our bottled water service. I cut other beverage and snack services. I turned our air conditioner and heater off except on the most extreme weather days. I stopped ordering supplies to have on hand, and only ordered what we needed, when we needed it. I even stopped paying myself — really. It still wasn’t enough.
Finally, with very little money in the bank, and very little left to lose, I resorted to the thing I feared the most — the holy trinity: marketing, advertising, and branding. In other words, I called upon the thing I knew how to do best. The very thing I had walked away from. I started from scratch to re-imagine our brand. I built a brand identity. A brand platform. A new website. A new logo. New direct marketing tools: targeted emails, direct mailers, social media posts… I created a print ad campaign to run in regional luxury publications like Architectural Digest, Lux Life, and California Home & Design. I was lucky enough to have some of our furniture featured in some of these publications, as well as a feature story in Marin Magazine about my personal story of reinventing my career.
A side effect of all this was that I rediscovered my passion for advertising, (More on this later).
We didn’t see huge results right away, but little by little business began to pick up. Particularly new business for custom furniture, both commercial and residential. New, higher profile design firms, with higher profile clients began to find us. We were working with top design firms like Erin Martin, Kimberly Rider and Ken Fulk.
4th LESSON LEARNED: STRONG TARGETED MARKETING REALLY DOES WORK!
As the economy slowly began to improve our business was increasing at a rapid pace. We went from an average turnaround time on orders of about 2 weeks during the worst of the recession, to a backlog of more that 6 months (impressive, but not the turnaround time clients want to hear). I doubled our staff. Increased their hours. I even gave myself a raise. We more than doubled our year on year revenue. We were quickly outgrowing our shop space. It was decision time — start turning business away, scale up, or sell.
5th LESSON LEARNED: SCALING UP IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT DEEP POCKETS, OR INVESTORS WITH DEEP POCKETS.
Even though business was now booming, I didn’t have the capital to move to a larger space and purchase the equipment we needed to make that leap to the next level. I didn’t want to take on more debt, and I didn’t want to have to answer to investors. So, I made the decision to get out. Sell the business I had worked so hard to keep alive. The business that nearly killed me with worry. The business I had finally brought close to my original vision.
We were in a good position to sell. The economy had almost fully bounced back. We had mucho dineros on the books for work in progress. My staff were some of the best in the business. We were primed and ready to sell.
6th LESSON LEARNED: KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ’EM AND KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM.
Within a month of listing the business for sale we had three offers. THREE! We got to choose who we wanted to carry on with what I had started. The transaction went smoothly, and relatively quickly. We didn’t get as much as I had hoped, but did alright. My time as a small business owner was over.
Would I do it again? With the gift of hindsight, no. That said, my advice is if you have a vision or dream for the next phase of your life — go for it. Just be prepared to be surprised by challenges you could never have imagined.
Was it all worth it? Yes. The lessons I learned about running my own business, about being responsible for the livelihood of others, about the importance of surrounding yourself with people more talented than you, about the power of a good brand strategy and marketing plan — can’t be learned from the best business schools or by working for someone else. Until it’s all on you, and it’s truly your ass on the line you’ll never know.
6th LESSON LEARNED: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SCRATCH AN ANNOYING ITCH TO FIND YOUR WAY BACK TO YOUR PASSION.
What now? I’m back in the game. I’m passionate about helping small business, start-ups and non-profits with their branding and creative strategies.
I hope my story is a cautionary tale for others considering taking that giant leap. Let me know what you think. Need some help? I’m here for you.