Reframe Your Business Mindset

After 10 years, I’ve found some simple business and lifestyle practices that have helped my small picture framing business survive and prosper.

Masterpiece Framing started in a small 10' x 10' corner of my parents’ basement when I was twenty years old. My business operated out of a suitcase filled with 50 frame samples, a calculator and a handful of blank invoices waiting for ink. I offered in-home consultations and framed everything from customers’ posters, to family heirlooms to sports jerseys.

Reflecting on my last ten years, it’s obvious that times have changed. I’ve since moved my business out of the basement and into a 3,000 square foot building that I own. Sales for my entire first year in business are equivalent to what I’m now able to do in just one week.

I’m not telling you my story to brag and toot my horn. Instead, I want other small business owners to know it’s entirely possible to earn a great doing what you love — Even if it’s something as simple as picture framing. I won’t pretend it’s easy, or that I have the magic bullet for endless success. In fact, I’d be the first to admit that getting my business off the ground was painful. My start-up years were filled with depression and doubt as I constantly questioned if I had chosen the right career path. The only thing that kept me going was my stubborn persistence; Something I like to call indomitable spirit.

As I celebrate my tenth year in business, I’m sharing with you some tips that I’ve learned throughout the journey of growing Masterpiece Framing. These are simple business practices that have helped me survive and prosper in a down economy. My hope is that at least one of these items will inspire you to take action and have a positive impact on your own business, or better yet, your life. Here goes:

I’m a huge fan of slow growth by continually making small changes in order to achieve a larger vision. Always look for ways to fine tune and simplify. This applies to everything. Figure out how to streamline production, speed up your order taking process, and eliminate all unnecessary clutter. The goal is to make the most amount of money, doing the least amount of work. Simplification of your business will lead to less headaches, lower cost of goods and more money in the bank.

Focus on numbers that actually matter
I often here the following two questions:
“How many employees do you have?”
“How many pictures do you frame every month?”
For some reason, we judge the success of a business by the number of employees on payroll or the number of widgets it cranks out. The higher these numbers, the more impressive and successful we sound. The same is true in almost every industry.

Society and big egos have created a business climate that thinks you need to grow. They think bigger is better. Maybe it’s time to reconsider. Never hire and expand for the sake of growth and pumping up your ego. There is something refreshing abut running lean and maximizing profits.

How about using this number when analyzing your business instead: Profit per employee. The way I calculate this number is by taking my salary, plus my employees’ salary, plus the company’s profit at the end of the year, and then dividing by the number of employees (myself included). I always compare this number in the current year to the prior year. My goal is to have it increase every year. How does this number shake out in your business?

Avoid debt at all costs
Debt is glorified nowadays. There’s a business mindset that thinks a business without debt is not properly leveraging it’s assets. I argue that a business without debt is a business with peace of mind. No debt means you sleep at night. No debt means you can do things your way, on your terms. No debt means you own your business free and clear with no worries about going bankrupt if things go bad.

While there may be a few select cases in which you have no other option than to barrow money, I recommend thinking long and hard before taking on debt. It could be the downfall of your business.

Live close to work
We all chose where to live. As business owners we have a big say in how close we live to our work. How much time do you spend commuting each week? Let’s do some simple math. It’s not uncommon to have an hour commute. That translates into two hours per day, ten hours per week, two days per month, twenty four days per year and three years per lifetime. Three years! You don’t have to waste years of your life sitting in traffic. Instead, chose to live close to work. Take those three years and spend them with your family, pursue a hobby or just chill out.

Start your day early
I made a minor adjustment to my schedule after my daughter was born. Two days out of the week, I head into work at 5:00 a.m. and work a five hour shift before my shop opens. Phone calls go directly to voicemail and I do not check email. You would be amazed at how much work gets done when you don’t have interruptions. I brew some coffee, crank up the music, and get into the framing zone. It can be very therapeutic and gives me time to meditate on life and business. Some of my best ideas have come to me on my “early” days.

By the time 10:00 hits, an employee has arrived and opens the shop for business. I go home for a mid-day siesta and family time. This includes lunch with my wife and daughter and sometimes a walk or a nap. I usually return to my shop around 1:00 in the afternoon and work the rest of the day. On occasion, when I’m caught up at work, I just take the rest of the day off.

Stay hungry
Find what motivates you and keep the fire going. It might be money, it might be making customers happy or it might be a love for your craft. Your motivations may evolve and change throughout your career. Nothing motivates me more than having to provide for my family. I believe it’s important to continually analyze and remind yourself why you do what you do for a living. It will help you to remain focused and purpose driven.

I mentioned the term “indomitable spirit” at the beginning of this article and it definitely translates into motivation. When applied correctly, it helps you overcome your short comings. For example, when I first started my business, I had a knack for working with customers and designing super-creative framing treatments for their artwork. On the flip side, I was not well versed in the more analytical aspects of running a business. Things like accounting, filing taxes, and payroll scared me. However, my passion and intense desire to succeed forced me to learn the things I wasn’t good at. Harness your fire and use it to learn, improve and take your skills and business to the next level.

Learn from your successes
Take a close look at the things you did well that had positive outcomes on your business. Build on those successes and you’ll start picking up momentum. Obviously you need to learn from your failures too, but the big breakthroughs come from learning and analyzing the things you did right.

For me, a big success came when I invested in a large format printer. I was able to offer customers the ability to print their photos oversize on canvas. This added service has led to countless framing sales over the years. Chances are, if we print a photo for a customer, they’re also going to need a frame for that print. Cha-ching!

Whack some vendors
When I opened my first brick and mortar store, I felt the need to offer my customers a huge selection of frames. I did business with five vendors and filled my walls with towers of frame samples. The downside to dealing with five vendors is that you split your money between too many companies and are unable to leverage any buying power. It also complicates the ordering process as you have to keep track of which vendors deliver on which days. This all adds up to inefficiency and a higher cost of goods.

A few years into running my business, I learned that consolidating vendors leads to more money spent with fewer companies. In turn, I was able to negotiate deeper discounts which gives me greater margins. How do you decide which vendors to keep and which ones to scrap? I recommend running an analysis to determine where your best selling products are coming from. Those vendors deserve more of your business. You might also look at the location of your vendors. If you have a local vendor, maybe it makes sense to keep them based on the fact that you can get product quicker if necessary.

Perfect your website
The saying used to be, “Location, location, location!” Now, it should be changed to, “Website, website, website!” My first store was tucked away in a dark corner of a stripmall. It was not the ideal location by any stretch of the imagination. I spent lots of money during my first years in business on traditional forms of advertising trying to get customers to discover me. I was lucky to break even paying for ads in newspapers, magazines, phone books and coupon mailings.

There was however, one form of advertising that worked extremely well. Once it was up and operating, it only cost me $10 per month. Looking back, my website may have been the biggest contributing factor to the success of my business. Do whatever it takes to make sure you have the best possible website for your business. When done correctly, it will bring you boatloads of business and make up for a lack-luster location.

Buy your building
If you’re in the game for the long haul, you need to consider purchasing instead of renting the space where you operate your business. The long-term benefits of owning a building are huge. I renounced debt in an earlier tip. However, I do believe that a mortgage is one form of “good” debt.

I’m not suggesting that you jump into a mortgage during the infancy of your business, but rather wait until you have a proven, profitable business model.

While there are many advantages to owning as opposed to renting, here are just a few of my favorites:
- Your monthly mortgage payment is locked in. You don’t have to worry about a landlord raising your rent every few years.
- Your building becomes a savings vehicle for retirement. You eventually will own the building free and clear. It can either be sold and you cash out. Or, you rent the building to a tenant and collect monthly income.
- It adds to your business credibility. When customers realize that you own your building, you gain an extra level of trust and confidence in your product.

Look within
The best advice that I can give you, is to follow your own advice. In other words, take a brutally honest look at yourself. You, more than anyone, know what needs to get done and the changes that need to occur in order to improve your business.

A great exercise is to pretend to be your own customer. How does your store look from a customer’s perspective? Does it look like it’s stuck in a 1980's time warp? How well do you present yourself? These are all thoughts that float through a customer’s head when they decide whether or not to do business with you.

It’s taken me ten years to figure out what’s really important in life and business. When I was a young buck fresh out of the gate, work controlled my life. Now I’m grounded. I’m in control and steering my own ship. My path is clear and I remain focused. I’m not saying that my way is the best or only way to run a business, but it works damn good for me.

There’s no better time than now to stop making excuses, trust your gut, get up off your butt and make it happen. You owe it to your business, your employees, your customers, your family and yourself.

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