A highlight for many of 140 people attending last month’s Work at What You Love workshop, was getting to hear from actual small business owners who’ve successfully turned their interests into income. The entrepreneurs at this year’s event were both inspiring and informative and included such diverse occupations as an animal communicator, freelance writer, potter, and wholesale food retailer. In this first part of a two part series you’ll be hearing some of the hard won nuggets of advice to help you start and succeed at your own small business.
Make Space for Success
You know the drill. You’re trying to get a new business up and running while juggling a full-time job. That’s just what Dawn Allen was facing when she was trying to launch her fledging animal communication business. Except in Dawn’s case it was four part-times jobs. So she went to an unusual source for advice – her dad. But then Dawn’s upbringing was unique.
Most families only offer discouragement (“What do you mean you want to quit your job? You’ve got a good job – you want to be happy to!?”). Dawn is one of the lucky few to have been raised by not one, but two entrepreneurs. Dawn knew from a young age that regardless of where her gifts and interests led her, that there would always be customers out there who would be willing to pay her for her services. She also had successful role models to guide her.
Dawn was feeling pretty discouraged about her ability to attract enough clients to her practice full time. Her father asked how many sessions she wanted to do a week. Dawn thought seven sounded good. Knowing how hectic his daughter’s life was, her father asked her when she planned do these seven appointments. The way Dawn saw it, when clients call, she’ll schedule them in. “No,” her father said, “You need to get out your appointment book, block the time, and they’ll fill.” Dawn followed her dad’s advice and much to her amazement, she says, “I did, and they did!”
Partly the message here is “if you build it they will come.” But it’s also about creating space in your life for success. In an interview with Charlie Rose, actor Helen Hunt talked about how tempting it is when you’re just starting out to grab whatever comes your way. Yet, around this same “pre-star” time in her career, Hunt says she began turning down been-there-done-that film roles in “hopes that something better might come along.” The idea, says Hunt, was to “kind of create a vacuum to make room for what hopefully, fate has in store.”
Sometimes you need to tempt fate – or at least give it a little space. Make room for new and better opportunities by saying no to commitments that don’t support your goals. Then have faith in your dream.
Dawn says you can call it manifesting or being prepared. Either way it worked. You may not be a believer, but Dawn’s 1500 clients are. Dawn averages 40 clients a week, many of them horse owners. Today, her business is so successful that she’s booked through the end of the year.
Make Time for Your Dreams
You’d love to be a writer or an event planner or motivational speaker or learn how to invest in real estate… but where will you find the time? If you work a full time job on top of family and other commitments, it only makes sense that you’d feel constantly caught between a clock and a hard place. Karen Orfitelli sure did.
Karen had one daughter in high school, another one in college, worked full-time as a middle school teacher, and was in graduate school. Karen always wanted to be a writer, but her life left little time for writing. It looked like her dream was not to be.
The laundry room is an unlikely place for inspiration to hit. Yet that’s where Karen, knee deep in towels, felt an urgent need to act on her dream of becoming a writer. So she made a commitment to herself to write five hours a week. So for the next six years she rose at 4:30 a.m. to write for an hour.
It’s amazing what can happen if you only carve out the time. Take Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. When Adams was still toiling away in his corporate cubicle at Pacific Bell he spend nights and weekends working on his cartoons. He too rose early to work on his cartoons from 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. before heading off to work. Once he had 50 sample strips in hand, he mailed them off to different syndicates. A few weeks later United Feature Syndicate called and offered him a contract. Today Adams’ management lampooning cartoon appears in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries.
Like Adams, Karen’s investment paid off. Since that day in the laundry room she’s seen more than 300 of her articles published and worked for a time as an editor for McGraw-Hill Publishers. But being willing to put in the time was not Karen’s only success strategy.
Develop the Art of “Wing Walking”
Few people can afford to change course over night and Karen is no exception. Nor did she take the leap all at once. In fact, two additional dos and don’t Karen offers people wanting to live the freelancing life are “don’t burn your bridges and develop the art of wing walking.”
Don’t burn your bridges should be a no-brainer. Yet in their glee to quit their job, too many people try to go out in a flame of glory – no notice, or worse, they take the opportunity to tell their boss exactly what they can do with their stinking job. There are times when that kind of thing does no real harm. But logic would say that you never know who you’ll run into down the road and sometimes your former employer can become your biggest client. I know mine did. There may be former co-workers you’ll want to call on from time to time for specialized advice or simply for networking purposes. For the first two years of this newsletter a former colleague proof read my newsletter for free!
So what does it mean to develop the art of “wing walking”? If you’ve ever been to an air show, you may have seen a high flying act where a woman in goggles and overalls climbs outside the plane and somehow manages to walk around the outside the plane while the pilot puts the plane through loop-the-loops and snap rolls. The trick that keeps her from falling is that she never lets go with one hand until she’s got a firm grip on something else.
Karen always had plan B lined up before letting go of the safety and security of plan A. For six years she kept her day job while she built her freelance career on the side. As her writing career starting demanding more and more of her time, Karen asked the administrators at her school if she could cut back to part time. Once her freelance work really took off, she let go of the teaching wing entirely.
Not being, in her words, “a risk taker,” Karen got a job working 16 hours a week editing a magazine for a political science professor at the University of Connecticut. Underscoring the need to sometimes “fake it ’til you make it,” Karen confesses that at the time that she didn’t even know what political science was. Around that same time she took an editing job with McGraw hill. The work was satisfying and she got to work from home, yet something was missing. “Sometimes in the process of achieving a dream,” Karen says, “you find the dream changes.” Karen missed teaching and working with children.
So before giving up her editing job, she lined up a position as a senior instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature where she provides one-to-one editorial feedback and guidance to adult students enrolled in the Institute’s Writing for Children and Teenagers course. “I love working with the students,” she says, “because 99% of them are where I used to be. They wonder if they have the talent and they don’t know where to begin.” Having developed the twin arts of writing and wing walking one’s way to a new career, fortunately Karen knows exactly how to help.
What About You?
What’s one thing you can do today to make space in your life for success? How can you eke out time for your dream? Can you give up one television show a week? Get up a little earlier and put in an hour on the weekend? Use your commuting or lunch time? What steps can you take today to either create or find that second, more satisfying wing to grab onto? How can you build in the support, get the training, or develop the expertise you need so when you’re ready, you too can let go of the wing you’re on to joyfully pursue the new one full time?
Don’t Take It All So Seriously
When I first met Rich Wagner, I was impressed with all that he’d accomplished, but was even more inspired by his ability to bounce back from failure. Rich’s story serves as a compelling reminder that people can and do survive failure. “As you look at striking out on your own,” Rich says, “try not to take it all so seriously.” After all he adds, “They don’t shoot people in the streets for failing.”
Not that Rich started out knowing much about failure. He’d climbed the corporate ladder going from being a buyer for a large department store chain to becoming a vice president. Then, one day, he chucked it all and bought a franchise store specializing in arts and crafts supplies. Rich says he “did everything right,” so much so that before long, he owned four stores. That is until, out of the blue, the franchise chain he’d bought into went belly up. When the parent company went bankrupt, so did Rich.
Bankruptcy is never easy. But with five daughters, two in college, it was an especially trying time for Rich and his wife. The bank repossessed his house and then came in the middle night for his car. Failure is no laughing matter when you’re going through it. In hindsight though, Rich is able to laugh at what was a highly stressful time. For example, despite their dire finances, Rich says his family was actually eating pretty well because the only credit card they had left was with a department store that had a gourmet shop, adding that if there is a bright side to losing your home, it’s that the repossession process can take up to a year and a half. In the meantime, you get to live rent free.
The ability to see the lighter side of darker times is an important survival strategy to master. Of being a business owner Rich says, “By God if you don’t enjoy it you’ve failed. You can have fun on the way up and you can fun on the way down.”
Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Basket
After Rich, in his words, “failed with a capital F,” he could have returned the corporate grind, but once you’ve had the experience of being your own boss, it’s hard to go back to having one. Besides, he says, as a business owner he’s able to make time for his five daughters. “I’ve never missed a soccer game,” says Rich. “Getting to games was something I was never able to do when I was an executive.”
However, having experienced the downside of investing heavily in one business, especially one over which he didn’t have ultimate control, Rich approached his next entrepreneurial foray differently. This time he wisely established multiple streams of income. Not only does generating income from more than one source add a degree of stability to his life, he’s happier because he gets to pursue a variety of interests.
Income Stream 1: Rich parlayed the knowledge he’d gained running his franchise stores to open his own frame shop in Simsbury, Connecticut. He has one employee and his store was recently selected by Décor magazine as one of “America’s Top 100” custom framers. Rich quips that unfortunately the designation is not based on revenue, yet he’s honored to be recognized for excellence.
Income Stream 2: A life long photo bug, he also makes a good living as a freelance photographer. One photo he took of Heublein tower, a local landmark in Avon, Connecticut has generated over $8,000 in sales, largely from tourists.
Income Stream 3: As a digital photography instructor and one of the course designers of the American Writers and Artists Institute’s newest course Turn Your Pictures into Cash (ThePhotographersLife.com/cc), Rich gets paid to share his expertise with others. (I had the pleasure of sitting in on a portion of this class in August and was extremely impressed with both Rich’s knowledge and teaching skills and with the course itself.)
Income Stream 4: Rich’s first three income streams compliment one another. His fourth profit center has nothing what so ever to do with framing or photography. When the owner of the ice cream shop next to his frame shop decided to sell his business, Rich bought it. Rich is a good example of the benefits of diversification. Just as you would diversify your financial investments, establishing multiple income streams is not only a safer way to change course, but a more satisfying one as well. “When the economy is bad, people may not spend as much to have pictures framed,” he says, “but they still eat ice cream.”
Craig Della Penna is also an enthusiastic champion of the multiple income stream model. He and his wife gross about $35,000 a year as bed and breakfast owners at the Sugar-Maple-Inn.com. Given that they only have two guest rooms and don’t cook breakfast, it’s a pretty low maintenance profit center. Craig also estimates that he earns another $10,000 a year in consulting fees from communities considering creating a rail trail and his real estate business nets him about $70,000 annually.
On the surface, these would appear to be very different income streams but Craig sees a lot of synergy. The B & B is along side a popular rail trail bike path in Northampton, Massachusetts. Visitors often inquire about moving to the area – and being a realtor specializing in antique homes and homes along rail trails, Craig says he has a “captive audience.”
Before he started his bed and breakfast, Craig says people would try to scare him out of it. “They’d ask, ‘Don’t you have to go to school to run a bed and breakfast’ or ‘Aren’t you afraid to have strangers in your home?’ There’s so much fear out there,” he says, “but most of it is not based on reality. If you want to start a business, just close your eyes, jump in, and do it.”
Get By With a Little Help from Your Friends
Everyone likes to talk about the “starving artist.” While it may not always be easy to turn your creative pursuits into income, working artist Bonnie Druschel is living proof that it is possible. But it wasn’t always easy. At her lowest moments – those times when she’d say to herself, “This will never work” or “Who do you think you are?” Bonnie says her husband Tom was always there to cheer her on. And when she didn’t have the money to travel to New York to attend her first art licensing trade show, it was her best friend Ann who stepped forward to lend her the money.
Then there’s former British merchant marine Ed Cothey. After he fell ill, his mother-in-law gave him his first computer so he’d have something to do while he was recovering. This small gesture of support launched his first small business venture as a website designer. One thing led to another. Because the support he received had spawned his entrepreneurial spirit, a casual visit to a llama farm awoke in Ed an interest in weaving which ultimately led him to his current career as a weaver and fiber farm owner.
Former nursing home administrator Francis Mosea’s life also changed largely as a result of the support of family and friends. But he didn’t always welcome this support. It began with his wife telling him he was grinding my teeth at night. Despite this and other signs that his high stress job was taking its toll, he refused to listen to his body.
Then friends began urging him to sell his black eyed pea bean cakes, a delicacy he’d learned how to make from his mother back in Nigeria. But Francis says, “I was still firmly entrenched in my comfort zone.” So he’d roll his eyes and remind his supporters that he was after all an executive – not a cook. Looking back, Francis realizes that wearing a suit and tie and having reached a certain level of success meant a lot to him because, as a Black man in America, he’d experienced first hand others making assumptions about who or what he was, most of which were not positive.
Then 911 happened. If it were not for a fussy daughter making his brother late for his job at the World Trade Center, Francis says his brother probably wouldn’t be here today. It was this wake up call that got Francis to really listen to his wife, his friends, members of his church, his body, and his heart. In just a few short years, Francis has been able to assemble an impressive list of accounts with restaurants, gourmet shops, grocery stores, and colleges throughout New England. Today, Francis tells would-be business owners that “sometimes the best ideas are right in front of you. If,” he adds, “you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone.”
Small is Beautiful or the Great Time vs. Money Debate
Potter Linda Siska likes to keep things simple. She doesn’t even own a computer and only recently got an answering machine. “It’s hard to stay small,” says Linda, “because when you do, the prevailing assumption is that you’re not successful.” But, then again, that all depends on your definition of “success.”
Despite pressure from friends, customers, store owners, and many of her fellow craftspeople to get a website, professional potter Linda resists. It’s not like she doesn’t know she could earn more money if people could order online. But to Linda, money is not the most important thing.
A guiding principle central to her life is what she calls minimalism. By leading a life of low consumption, by for example, joining a local food coop, repairing broken items rather than tossing them, and buying many things used rather than new – she and her partner Waino, a dairy farm hand and active conservationist, are able to keep their expenses low and their enjoyment of life high. It’s not about being miserly. In fact, when you measure their level of contentment, Linda and Waino live one of the richest lives of anyone I know.
By intentionally keeping her business small and avoiding the kind of time commitment that a website and staying on top of the onslaught of email requires, Linda gets to do things she enjoys. One of these passions is gardening. Each spring, Linda plants an enormous vegetable garden. The fruits of her labor go a long way in providing her and Waino food for much of the winter. Rather than squeeze in her planting each May, Linda made the decision a few years ago that she’d give herself a full three weeks off to devote entirely to getting her garden in. When was the last time you were able to take three weeks off for a labor of love?
Not only does she take off most of May, but since she’s her own boss, Linda also takes the entire months of August and January as well. During her summer break, you’ll find her reading, swimming, hiking, and relaxing at a secluded lake in Maine. In the winter, she spends her days cross country skiing and getting caught up on household projects after putting in a busy fall season stocking up pots for sale during the holidays.
Francis Mosea also thinks small is beautiful. He could distribute his Nigerian black bean cakes nationally but he says, “Like Linda said, there are benefits to staying small. I’m having too much fun making them and marketing them myself.”
Staying small also allows Francis to enjoy more time with his family. For example, he took the entire month of August off for a three week vacation in Florida, something he says he could never done when he was in his corporate job, or if he decided to go big. “Life,” says Francis, “is short.”
Bonnie Druschel is the first one to tell you that success is rarely an overnight thing. She began by telling the audience that Dr. Suess published his first book, And to Think That It Happened on Mulberry Street in 1937 – after 27 rejections. Twenty years later, he published his two block busters, Cat in the Hat and How The Grinch that Stole Christmas.
It didn’t take Bonnie twenty years to succeed, but it did take a while. In 1987 she was working as a secretary in a Fortune 500 company. Despite a wake up call reminding her of her true dream of being an artist, it took another three years before she went back to school to earn her BFA. When she graduated in 1994, Bonnie began making her own line of jewelry. She landed some accounts but still it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to be doing. To earn money, she continued to do temp work before going to work for a woman who designed inspirational posters. That’s when she discovered the world of art licensing.
Despite those inner voices saying, “I’m not good enough” or “Who do you think you are?” Bonnie persisted. Today her business is thriving due in large part to a licensing agreement she landed with a giftware manufacturer. The company featured her artwork on a 33 piece product line that included mugs, votives, magnets, key chains, gift bags, gift totes, and jewelry pins, many of which feature inspirational sayings coined by Bonnie. Bonnie talked about what it takes to get your artwork licensed and how, one step at a time, she made her own dreams come true!
Bonnie Drushel passed on some great advice: Be patient, start small, keep your day job and build your business on the side, and to keep your momentum going, take one step every day. If I had to pick one message to zero in on, it would be that pursing a dream is a process of trial and error. Or as Bonnie put it, “It’s okay to fail. Just be sure to fail forward.”
Let those words sink in for a moment… fail forward. Despite having talked and written about the topic of failure at length, I’d never heard it put quite this way. The words have a certain kind of energy and imagery to them – don’t you think? What would it mean for you to fail forward? Failing forward is all about forward movement. With action comes trial and error, success and failure. As the Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Corporation said, “Success is 99 percent failure.” And look what happened with his dream!