Tag Archives: Starting a company

Ride the wave of love for startups — and existing small companies

If you’re an entrepreneur — or are thinking about becoming one — take advantage of the prevailing national pride in small business. America has always had a love affair with the Mom and Pop Main Street shop, but now, more than ever, the country is depending on entrepreneurs of every ilk to play a large role in our economic growth.

During the dark days of this recession, small business owners everywhere watched the big banks and car companies in the news and joked, “Where’s my bailout?” If it’s lonely at the top, it’s especially desolate at the top of a small business, where entrepreneurs have struggled alone with all kinds of tough decisions, from whether to lay off valued employees to if it might be time to file for bankruptcy. Plenty of small companies have folded, but many more are still standing.

These business owners, and the new entrepreneurs joining their ranks, are poised to become the national heroes of the American economy. For one thing, they provide half the jobs in the country and create up to 80% of all new jobs. Lawmakers and business reporters are now pulling out all the classic metaphors, like small business being “the backbone of the economy” and “the engine driving our economic recovery.”

If you own a small business and survived 2009, or if you started a business last year, you deserve some high praise. No doubt it required sharp business acumen, not to mention bravery, to pull that off. The people around you, in your company, your community and even your country, appreciate what you’ve done to help keep your employees working and your vendors in business. People with income can spend, which creates more income, and more spending, and eventually, the economy will be thriving again.

This is what I’d like to see. I’d like to be sitting on a plane sometime soon and have the airline attendant stand up and grab her microphone to say, “Ladies and gentleman, we have some small business owners on board with us today. Let’s give them all a round of applause to thank them for their part in stimulating the American economy.”

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.

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.

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.


Start your own company — with your iPhone

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1Now would-be entrepreneurs have a new tool to make launching a business easier: the Start Your Own Company app for the iPhone. This .99 application offers a streamlined, step-by-step approach to becoming your own boss — and is the first iPhone app to actually walk users through that process.

The Start Your Own Company app  is like a series of flash cards, with a basic step on the front  of each card– and more information on the back about how to tackle that step. (You can see a video of our young copywriter doing a demo of the app on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/startercardvideo .)

The app is actually a mini-version of the printed Start Your Own Company deck we developed for Starter Cards, the division of Tribe we opened recently to develop tools for entrepreneurs. If this version is well-received, we’ll release the full 52-card deck as an iPhone app down the road.

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1aAnyone who’s ever started a company knows there’s no shortage of information out there about starting a business. Enough information, in fact, that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Our goal with this app was to present the information in bite-sized pieces, so that it’s easier to see the bare bones of the plan. Like any major goal, launching a company can be broken down smaller, more manageable tasks. Take the process one task at a time, and before you know it you’re up and running.

Our other goal was to offer some help to the many people who now find themselves accidental entrepreneurs. Some of us always dreamed of running our own show, but in the current economy, many frustrated job seekers are deciding that the best way to replace their income might be by creating it themselves.

Know someone who’s been kicking around the idea of starting a company? This app could be a great first step for them. And if they have any comments or suggestions for improvement, we’d love to hear them.