There’s something about a five-year anniversary. It doesn’t warrant a major celebration, like any self-respecting multiple of 10. But its passage does signify that point in the life of a business—especially a startup or mom-and-pop shop—where being in it for the long haul becomes a real and tangible possibility.
As they celebrate this milestone anniversary, four small businesses share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Proud parents and grandparents Bob and Lynn Shaffer planned to retire when they moved to Sarasota from Buffalo, N.Y. But that’s the thing about entrepreneurs: They don’t retire well.
In Buffalo, Bob owned a vacuum cleaner store and, in 30 years, grew the business to five stores. The Shaffers utilized their expertise to start ABC Rentals, a baby- and beach-equipment rental business, at 4519 S. Tamiami Trail, in 2002.
ABC Rentals started in a 10-by-20-foot warehouse, expanded to a 1,500-square-foot facility and added a retail location in 2005. “This was supposed to be a part-time business,” Lynn says with a laugh. “We started with a half-dozen cribs; now we have more than 200!”
The Shaffers now offer more than 70 different rental items for traveling families. All products are listed on their Web site (www.abcbabyrental.com), which has been a huge part of their success.
A proponent of the slow-and-steady growth model, Lynn says there is no substitute for hard work. “We put a lot of sweat equity in this place; we work seven days a week,” she says, adding—almost apologetically—“although we do take Christmas off.” She agrees wholeheartedly with what a customer once told her: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
And despite trials along the way—including the difficulty of hiring and retaining quality help, and having to rely on tourism for the bulk of business—good planning helps ensure all that hard work pays off.
The Shaffers are always looking for new and innovative ways to expand. “My husband wants to franchise, but I don’t like to get ahead of myself,” Lynn says. “It’s good he has a vision, but I’m the one who keeps us grounded.”
While Bob takes care of the customers, Lynn handles “the details,” which can include making deliveries, handling the bookwork, even cleaning the toilets. After all, business owners can’t be afraid to get their hands dirty.
“I firmly believe in the American dream,” she says. “If you believe in yourself, you can make it happen.”
Stay true to your values.
Monitor money and watch your overhead.
Be hands on. It’s important to stay involved.
Give back to the community, if you can.
Expect word-of-mouth praise to start working for you until you’ve built up a client base.
Walk away from your business; you lose integrity.
Get ahead of yourself; only grow as fast as your business will allow.
Corey Eiseman, who at 30 has already owned his business for five years, moved to Sarasota to work for the award-winning Web site design company GravityFree.
Eiseman eventually wanted to be able to pick and choose his projects and become involved with all aspects of Web design. “I was interested in more than just graphic design,” he says. “I wanted new challenges. I felt that starting my own business would be a good way to do that.” Prior to starting his own Web design company, Infinite Orange (www.infiniteorange.com), he had been freelancing for a client on the side. And the client kept providing him more work.
“It happened at the right time,” Eiseman says. “I had a little security blanket; I knew I had one client to begin with. And I haven’t regretted it since.”
Originally from Miami, Eiseman earned a degree in fine arts at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. After college, he fell into Web design fairly quickly, as a matter of survival, and ended up teaching himself the trade. “It’s a great convergence of my interests: art, design and technology,” he says.
Eiseman recently moved from his home office into an office space at Webber and Beneva. The combination of a growing business and two young children made it difficult for him to continue working from home.
And Infinite Orange continues to grow, solely through word-of-mouth praise from pleased clients.
Create a business plan, even if it’s informal.
Be afraid to ask for help.
Be afraid to say no in terms of taking on new clients.
SARASOTA ARCHITECTURAL SALVAGE
Nominated for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce Young Business of the Year award, Sarasota Architectural Salvage (www.sarasotasalvage.com) is a perfect marriage of owner Jesse White’s passions for Old World materials and environmental protection.
Prior to founding SAS in 2002, White, 39, earned his master’s degree in environmental resources management and spent 10 years as an environmental consultant, helping municipalities and businesses determine the best ways to reduce waste.
“I wanted to do something more tangible,” White says. “As a consultant, you can write up a really great report, but it’s up to someone else whether it gets implemented.”
If you can describe it, you’ll probably find something like it at SAS’ 10,000-square-foot showroom at 1093 Central Ave. in downtown Sarasota. Here, where the bulk of inventory—old cabinets, doors, flooring, tile and hardware—is rescued from demolition sites, it’s clear that one person’s trash really is another’s treasure.
Customer service is a linchpin in this business. To that end, SAS allows clients to take a piece home for a night to see if it will work with the décor of their house. Staffers will also call customers when that perfect piece they’ve been looking for comes in, and will put requested pieces on hold for a limited amount of time.
Prices are reasonable enough that dealers can purchase items, bring them into other markets and sell them at a profit, enabling SAS to serve the retail and wholesale client at the same time.
And White offers other, less tangible benefits: “People want the history that goes with the piece,” he says.
White’s successful plan to grow the business has been to build a growing customer base through word-of-mouth advertising, while simultaneously building relationships with larger clients, including designers, builders and remodelers.
“At the end of the day, you live and die by how many sales you made and how much you kept out of the landfill; and whether you were able to save a really great piece,” he says. “And I see our success every day in the eyes of my customers.”
Hire and retain quality staff people aligned with your mission.
Be accountable and honest; listen and respond to customers.
Offer quality products at a good price.
Keep an untarnished rep.
Think about life in a positive way. Have fun!
Run out of cash. You have to figure out how to hold on and not get to the end of your rope.
Take on projects that are not going to be profitable.
CRYSTAL BLUE POOLS
As a former welder and deli manager, respectively, Barry and Yvonne Cavanaugh always dreamed of starting their own business.
“After 25 years, I was tired of going in at 7 in the morning, getting yelled at if I was a minute late, and being treated like property,” says Barry, who, like so many others, was motivated to start his own business through the daily grind of busting his hump for someone else.
Prior to starting Crystal Blue Pools, a pool cleaning and maintenance company, Barry had his own welding business, BC Fabricating, for four years. The problem: Each job was often a one-time deal. “The pool business is recurring work,” Barry says. “Once you have a customer and you keep them happy, they’ll remain.”
The Cavanaughs have been successful at keeping the vast majority of their pool accounts, which have grown from a handful to more than 50 since the inception of the business five years ago.
“The first year or two is a struggle; it takes time to get your name out there, and for people to find out your work is quality,” Barry says. “You can’t give up, or you’ll end up working for somebody else. You still have to pay your bills. So what do you do? You take out a second mortgage on your house. You do whatever it takes to keep your business going.”
Barry knows the importance of maintaining a dialogue with his customers. He makes notes when out in the field, and calls people every day about maintenance issues. “It’s not just about cleaning pools, it’s about talking with people and being friendly,” he says. “It’s amazing how happy a simple phone call can make a customer.”
Barry advises those starting their own business to not take on more than they can handle. “If you don’t have enough time to do an exemplary job, you have too many accounts,” he says. “We treat every pool like it’s our own.”
According to Barry, there are too many people out there who just don’t care because they’re working for someone else. “If it’s my business,” he says, “I have to try to be the best.”
A good job and always go the extra mile for customers. Little things go a long way.
Take pride in your work.
Grow too fast or take on too much.
Get discouraged. No matter how hard you try, there are always going to be some people you can never make happy.
Take advantage of people, because you wouldn’t want someone to take advantage of you.
Overcharge. Make a living, but don’t rip people off.
Be afraid to show the love you have for your business. After all, it takes plenty of passion to make it five years … and counting!