Category Archives: Starting a company

Sustainable Startup: Worthwhile Wine From South Africa

Tom_Miranda_Zumas_smallTom Lynch’s new company really began on a father-daughter trip. He and his 13-year-old Miranda were planning a trip to South Africa, and decided they should spend a week of their time there doing something to help. They ended up in Nzinga, a remote village of mud huts, where Miranda read books to the children and helped out in the school while her dad was put to work planting potatoes and working in the communal garden.

On the trip home, Miranda told her father they couldn’t just leave and do nothing else. She wanted to keep working to help this village. Tom agreed to help her launch a non-profit, which Miranda named Isopho, a Zulu word for “gift” and the children’s nickname for Miranda. While they were sitting there waiting for the plane, Tom searched for available URLs and registered Isopho.org then and there.

Eventually, Tom began to feel a disconnect between his work with Isopho on nights and weekends and his daytime job as a VP of Strategy & Planning for a large digital agency. Doing more of the same each day at work felt insufficient, in light of the challenges he’d accepted in Nzinga. When the company began to consider layoffs, he suggested a mutually beneficial exit agreement for himself so that he could spend more time on Isopho.

He also began thinking about starting a company that might be a better complement to Isopho. On one trip to South Africa, he stayed an extra few weeks to visit an extensive list of wineries he had culled from an even larger list.  His first requirement was that the vineyard consistently win awards for great wine. And the second was that it contribute to sustainability in some major ways. Despite its unfortunate history, the South African wine industry is now one of the most progressive in the world.

The result is Tom’s new company, Worthwhile Wines, which will import 261 sustainable wines from 21 different South African Vineyards. Although the history of winemaking in South Africa is oppressive at best, the vineyards Tom selected are doing things like putting a third of the land in the names of the Black workers, providing school and decent housing for the families working there, developing ways to use fewer pesticides, using organic grapes and employing Blacks in management roles.

Most of us would choose a sustainable product over a similar one that’s not sustainable. But few of us want to go to much trouble to figure that out. Choosing a bottle imported by WorthWhile Wines will be a quick and easy way for consumers to know they’re a) getting a good wine, that B) is from a vineyard that ‘s doing good.

Worthwhile Wines will also be a way Tom Lynch can a) run a good business that b) does some good in the world.

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The Weird Resumes That Lead To Successful Entrepreneurs

ML hurdles026

Marilou (in white) hurdles toward her future startup

The path to entrepreneurship often covers exactly the right ground, in ways we could never predict. Interests and experience that seem to be unrelated eventually turn out to be precisely the preparation a specific new venture requires.

Marilou McFarlane, for example, has recently launched Vivo Girls Sports, an online community for athletic girls aged 13-22. If she had known when she was a kid that this was the company she’d start at age 48, she could not have plotted a more useful resume of stepping stones to this moment.

Sure, Marilou played sports as a girl. Soccer and track and tennis and more. She also grew up around college sports, since her father, Jim Heavner, announced many of the Tarheel games for WCHL,  the radio station he started in Chapel Hill. (Being the daughter of an entrepreneur also helps pave the way for starting your own gig later.) After college, she worked for Turner, back when Ted still owned it all, so that gave her some good experience in media, as well as a chance to work for another entrepreneur who thinks big. Later, in San Francisco, she was a media rep for KCBS for many years, before she started her own company, McFarlane Marketing. She had two daughters, both athletic, and was involved in season after season of their sports. For two years, she served as president of their soccer league, a full-time volunteer position she handled while continuing to build her marketing company. She also started an offshoot of  her marketing company that targeted colleges specifically. And now her oldest daughter, Kelly, will be playing for the Tarheels in Chapel Hill starting next year — on their very impressive women’s soccer team.

Marilou knows sports and she knows marketing. She understands teenagers and college students. She has a deep affinity for the issues that girls in those age brackets are facing. She’s savvy to the incredible buying power of this group and its appeal to marketers. And she’s not afraid to start something  new.

Starting a company is not just a way to make a living. Sometimes it’s how we reconcile and integrate everything we are.

Mompreneurs have options military moms don’t

mombabyThe front page of the New York Times yesterday carried an article on women balancing military duty and family. The military seems to have adapted fairly well to women serving alongside men, just as the workplace has over the past several decades. “Motherhood, though,” says the writer of the article, Lizette Alvarez, “poses a more formidable challenge for the armed forces.”

The corporate world is also still struggling with how to accommodate motherhood. The difficulties presented by that dual life — corporate gig and loving mom — are one reason so many women start their own companies before they work their way up to that corner office.

“Hanging on to today’s war-savvy, battle-tested cadre of mothers — and would-be mothers — is both crucial and difficult for the Army, say officers, enlistees and experts. ‘The Army’s challenge, but also the military’s challenge, is to help service members feel they don’t have to choose between family life and their military career,’ said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, an organization supported in part by the Department of Defense.”

“’They leave when they can’t figure out’ a way to do both, she said.” Just as many mothers leave their corporate positions when they can’t reconcile the demands of their work calendar with their kid’s schedules.

Running their own businesses allows mothers the freedom to control their own calendars. Being able to schedule business trips so they don’t interfere with kids’ birthdays and school plays, to set client meetings at a time that will still get you to soccer practice by pickup, can make all the difference. It’s one of the chief advantages of entrepreneurship, especially for parents.

Most mothers I know who’ve started a company aren’t really looking for a way to work less hard. Entrepreneurs of every stripe work hard. They’re attracted to entrepreneurship partly because it allows them to work on their own terms  — and around their kids’ routines. They might put in a few hours before the kids wake up and break to get them breakfast and off to the school bus. They might field phone calls on their cell while driving a backseat of ballerinas to dance class. Or take the afternoon to oversee homework and fix dinner, but spend a productive few hours on the computer after the kids are in bed.

Starting a business is also a way women can have it both ways. They can manage the needs of their children, but not miss the excitement and satisfaction of doing work they love and are good at. Those two driving forces are much more difficult to reconcile when the place you work is a war zone.

“Not long after reuniting with her children in 2005, Specialist Holschlag said, she was sitting alone in her apartment in Iowa when she was struck by a thought she recognized as absurdly selfish: she wanted to go back to Iraq.”

The Romance Of A Startup

King PlowThere’s nothing like the excitement of starting your own business. Most entrepreneurs have a certain nostalgia about the early days when their companies were only a few steps beyond those initial notes on a legal pad — or a cocktail napkin.

When I launched my first ad agency, we really did start with a cocktail napkin. My business partner and I were teaching classes one evening a week at an ad school, and afterwards we’d meet up the street for a glass of wine. We would plot and plan and scribble thoughts on paper napkins, as we discussed our vision for the agency we would eventually call Match. Before we decided on a name, we practiced at the same bar with their cloth napkin rolls, wrapped around knifes and forks. We’d pick up that napkin roll and hold it to our ear saying, “Hello, thanks for calling Albert & Baskin.” No, that sounds like an ice cream store. “Hello, thanks for calling Magnet.” Okay, maybe. Until we finally tried, “Hello, thanks for calling Match,” and decided that was the one.

Our first office was two rooms in a renovated plow factory. We would spend the days pitching business and going to see clients, and then about 5 or 6 the phones would simmer down and we’d start doing the creative work for whatever deadlines we were trying to meet. I’ll never forget how it felt to be there working late, with the glow of lamplight on the dusty red brick walls and the rumble of trains moving past our open windows, almost close enough to reach out and touch. We’d have good music on the stereo and our dogs at our feet and after awhile we’d start to have some good ideas. It was heady stuff.

At first, we couldn’t afford much furniture and most of what we had was hand-me-down. Our desk was a borrowed dining room table we shared, facing each other across our laptops. We splurged on a pair of new swiveling desk chairs at the Office Depot, but hadn’t yet sprung for any rugs, so the chairs would slowly roll away on the warped old hardwood floors if you didn’t keep a good grip with your feet. One late night I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, writing on a pad of paper in my lap. I heard my partner B.A. talking to me, but she sounded far away. When I looked up, I realized I had rolled downhill all the way across the room. After that, we got some rugs, and they also helped with the noise of the trains which was so loud it was beginning to make our teeth rattle around in our heads.

Eventually, our little startup was employing ten or 12 people and working with an impressive list of clients. We grew out of our two rooms and knocked down walls to expand into three connected studio spaces. We bought furniture and returned the desks and tables and other pieces we’d begged and borrowed in the beginning. We put in a sophisticated phone system. We started a 401(k) plan. In short, we became a real business. Our startup worked.

But I wouldn’t trade anything for those early days. There’s nothing like the feeling of making something out of thin air. One day, Match was a stack of cocktail napkins covered in Sharpie. Then suddenly, there was a company that didn’t exist before, doing good work for clients, supporting a number of people in doing work they love, and giving other would-be entrepreneurs the confidence that they could do it too.

Several years later, a woman I’d worked with a decade before asked me to lunch to discuss the company she was about to launch. Over our Caesar salads she said, “I told my business partner, how hard could it be? If Elizabeth and B.A. can do it, anyone can!”

The long road to overnight success with an iPhone app

iTunesWatching our new iPhone app climb the charts in Apple’s ratings feels like watching election returns when your side is winning. On September 10, we launched the Start Your Own Company application from Starter Cards (the division of our ad agency that develops content and tools for entrepreneurs) and have spent the last ten days tracking its move through Apple’s rankings. After four days, it broke into the Top 100, debuting at 92 in paid business apps. The next day, it moved up to 66. Over the weekend, we broke into the Top 50, squeaking in at 47 and crawling up to 45 by Sunday afternoon. Today, we were ecstatic to see the app nicely positioned in the Top 25, holding steady at number 20, and by the time we all left the office at 5 o’clock it was sitting pretty at number 17. It’s starting to feel like we might be onto something here.

Anyone who runs a small business knows that there are plenty of days and months and even sometimes years when you wonder if your big idea is going to work. You have to train yourself to keep the faith, despite setbacks and quagmires and plenty of heavy slogging uphill. Some days that can be damn hard.

Then one day, everything in the universe lines up just so, and you have a major win. Suddenly, it all looks easy. It feels easy. You experience what I call the moving sidewalk effect, where you’re just strolling along yet propelled ahead at a satisfying clip.

But what makes one effort a win and another a dud? Why does one particular idea pop, while others fizzle out? I wish there were an app for that. I don’t know the answer, but this is what I think helps:

1. Sending out a lot of ships, as my old friend Chellie Campbell would say. To switch metaphors, the more irons you have in the fire, the more of a chance you have of one becoming really, really hot. Also, it helps cushion disappointment to have your hopes pinned on more than one good idea.

2. Surrounding yourself with talent. One thing you learn early on in the ad industry is that a great concept is only as good as its execution. If you have a brilliant idea for a commercial and turn it over to a lackluster director, your spot is not going to become the talk of the town. (At least not in a good way.) You want the best people you can get to bring your ideas to life.

3. Any flame begins as a tiny ember. This one comes from my old business partner B.A. Albert, now president of Grey Atlanta. Great ideas and big opportunities rarely present themselves as roaring fires. You have to recognize them when they’re  nothing more than a little glow. You blow on that ember, feed it tiny pieces of kindling, then larger sticks, finally logs. Steady as she goes, you follow one step with another with another.

4. Hope for a lucky break. In this case, our big break was Alissa Walker deciding the story of our iPhone app would be a great fit for Fast Company, successfully pitching it to her editor, and then writing a fantastic piece. That one article on Fast Company’s website is the most likely cause of the Start Your Own Company app’s amazing momentum in the Apple rankings.

5. Set the stage for lucky breaks. We had heard that the first week after launching an app was critical, and so we mobilized to maximize the moment. Before launch day, we had prepped to submit the application to reviewers, post a YouTube demo video, launch a Facebook fan page, mention it on LinkedIn and tweet about it on Twitter. We prepared a press release and jpegs to send to a core group of reporters, most of whom we’ve built relationships with over months or years. (In fact, I’ve known Alissa since she was an intern in my ad agency in the late 90’s, and have watched her blossoming career from afar.) Sometimes luck just happens, but it happens more often if you prepare the ground for it to take root.

That’s all I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

After a baby, is starting a company a better idea than going back to work?

babyMaggie would really rather be at home with her new baby, but went back to her job after a standard maternity leave because she and her husband decided they couldn’t afford for her not to work. Several months into it, she’s figured out that after paying for childcare and other expenses associated with the job, she nets about $300 a month. So, in her words, she’s working “to pay for a couple of tanks of gas and some groceries.”

Is there not a better way to make $300? Maggie is the sister of a friend of mine, and I’ve only met her once or twice, but I can’t quit thinking about her situation. I remember what it was like to have a new baby and be torn away by work. And I loved my work at the time, although I understand Maggie is not crazy about her job. I do know she comes from an entrepreneurial family, so the idea of starting her own business is probably not foreign to her.

What sort of business could she start that would mean limited time away from her baby? We’re not talking about the kind of all-consuming startup that requires 80 hours a week or depends on venture capital to get off the ground. To quit her job, Maggie would only need to create $3,600 a year in net profit. That’s not so hard to do. Let’s look at some hypothetical possibilities, making some huge assumptions about what sorts of skills and talents she might have to offer — and the kinds of things she’d actually enjoy doing.

A good solution would be something she could bill by the hour, for only a handful of hours a week. Let’s say she’s a talented tennis player and could give tennis lessons, or fluent in French and could tutor high school students, or a math whiz and could serve as an SAT coach for kids trying to raise their scores. If she charged $50 an hour, or even $35, she could work a very short week and clear her $300 net, even if she had to pay a babysitter. Although, she also might schedule some of those hours during the weekends when her husband could be with the baby.

Let’s say she’s been keeping the company books on Quickbooks at her current job. So many small businesses use that accounting software, many of which might not be large enough to have a full-time bookkeeper but would like to outsource the accounts payable, accounts receivable and basic financial reports. She could handle the books for one or two small companies by going in just a morning or so a week and come home with that $300 or more.

What about starting a company that would provide something needed by other mothers with young kids? I remember several years ago a  woman in New York had the brilliant idea of an exercise class in Central Park that incorporated baby strollers (and babies) into the fitness routine. Maybe Maggie was a lifeguard and swim instructor in her youth and could start a group swimming class for mothers and babies using her mom’s backyard pool.

One trick to making this plan work would be choosing a business that offers the chance of recurring income from the same clients month after month. In other words, she signs up one student for tennis lessons and sees them once a week for months on end. Or connects with a small business who could use a freelance bookkeeper and continues to do their books until they’re large enough to need someone full time. Otherwise, she’ll need to spend a large amount of her time marketing her services so she can create new clients over and over.

Selling your hours adds up more quickly than selling a thing. Particularly a thing that requires hard costs for materials or equipment.  This is not always true, but I think would be for the types of things I can imagine someone like Maggie selling, like homemade greeting cards (she’s very crafty) or hand sewn baby bonnets or fresh-baked birthday cakes. She would have to sell a whole bunch of any of those to make her $300 each month. If you have a skill or talent that allows you to charge a significant hourly rate, that can be an easier path to doing without a paycheck.

Starting a company as a mompreneur doesn’t have to be complicated. If you don’t need to rent office space or hire employees or buy expensive equipment, the startup doesn’t have to cost much either. This is not meant to be a pushy plug for our products, but the Start Your Own Company application for the iPhone is just .99 and could walk Maggie through the basic steps of launching a business. Or she could try the more comprehensive Start Your Own Company printed deck from Starter Cards, which also includes information on the Launch and Follow-Through phases as well as the Launch phase. Either one could be a simple first step to creating a life-sized business that works for this stage of her life.


Jobless at 58 sounds like an entrepreneur to me

Yesterday the New York Times ran a headline that read, “At 58, a Life Story in Need of a Rewrite.” The article was about Michael Blattman, who’s been out of work since January of 2008. Blattman is a 58-year-old MBA with a strong resume in financial services who once earned $225,000 a year.

After a year and a half of an unfruitful job search, it seems obvious that this guy should start his own gig. It’s unlikely that the financial sector will be in a hiring frenzy anytime soon. Blattman has applied for 600 jobs, according to the Times, and has scored exactly three interviews, only one of which was in person. It doesn’t look good for him being gainfully employed at a hefty salary anytime soon.

startercards.0626When I hear about people like Blatmann, first I want to shake them and then I want to find their address and send them a deck of our Start Your Own Company cards. He clearly has experience and expertise to share, having worked with the Federal Reserve and the Sallie Mae student loan program, as well as teaching business classes at the University of Maryland.

Why is he not starting his own company, or at least hanging out his shingle as a consultant? The cost of going into business for yourself needn’t be much of a hurdle, in an age when you can incorporate online with LegalZoom for $139 and launch a website with a free template. Perhaps there’s a growing need for guidance in applying for student loans, or maybe he could consult with schools on some aspect of providing financial assistance. Or it could be that his real passion is wine or carpentry or backpacking or piano and this is his chance to start a company doing what he loves.

He’s clearly got time on his hands that might be put to better use. He mentioned to the Times reporter that he had “zero” planned for the coming week, and he admits to driving two towns over for groceries, just to kill an hour or so. Blattman is divorced, but has given up on computer dating sites for now, because women apparently don’t show much interest in 58-year-old guys who are unemployed. It seems his life could use some positive momentum.

Blattman comes across as intelligent, likable, capable. He has years of contacts and a strong reputation in his industry. Why not use the thick skin he’s no doubt developed over his 18-month job search to sell the services of his own company, rather than trying to get hired by someone else?

He may have excellent reasons for continuing to job hunt rather than creating his own income. But I wonder if he just doesn’t realize that starting a company doesn’t have to be that hard. When I run into someone stuck in that spot, I want to get up on my soapbox and shout about how Starter Cards take you through the process, one manageable step at a time.

This is the era of unintentional entrepreneurs. People who never considered themselves the entrepreneurial type are creating their own work when they can’t find suitable jobs. But unintentional or not, every entrepreneur has to summon the guts to take that first leap.

Like anything else, launching a business can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks. If you know a Blattman out there,  send him or her to the Starter Cards website  for that Start Your Own Company deck. And if you’re Michael Blattman, give me your address and I’ll mail you a deck as my gift.