If she’d had a magic wand, Pam Holland would have been a photo journalist or done something in the arts, but instead the New Jersey girl, with a dash of New York, ended up in law school.
“Part of me loved the problem-solving aspect, but after law school I worked at a law firm doing commercial real estate transactions and I really hated it. It was like being a wedding planner for lawyers, too much detail, too many boxes to check.”
To her delight, she got laid off and was recruited to Fannie Mae where she did mortgage policy work. She loved it and stayed over two decades thanks to the interesting work, great benefits, and a near-perfect family/work-life balance.
But the itch to start a business was constant.
“I’d drive my husband crazy with my ideas. There was Kippah Girl, producing colorful kippahs, the beach buggy rental business (secretly it was just because I loved the name Buggies at the Beach) … I recall standing in front of a soda machine many moons ago saying ‘I wish I could get bottled water from this.’ I’ve always been identifying opportunities.”
Toward the end of her time at Fannie Mae, Holland went to a career counselor and discussed her entrepreneurial dreams. “Even as a kid, I’d been trying to figure out how to make money. I’d have garage sales and made candles, selling them door-to-door. I remember the coach said if that little voice has been talking to you since you were eight, then maybe it’s time to listen to it. I never thought starting something new was an option for me, but after that I began playing with the idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
About a year or so later and one year before she turned 50, Holland decided to resign. The mortgage crisis had hit, Fannie Mae was in conservatorship, and the economy was blowing up.
“There were no longer opportunities. I had totally outgrown my seat, there was nothing left that I really wanted to accomplish. I felt like I had one more career in me and knew that never starting that business would be my number one regret.”
Despite all the ideas bouncing around in her head, Holland didn’t jump right away into entrepreneurial life. She took a consulting position with Bank of America, but after two years hit a wall and decided to leave – but not without a plan.
“I remember the coach said if that little voice has been talking to you since you were eight, then maybe it’s time to listen to it. I never thought starting something new was an option for me, but after that I began playing with the idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
For some time, she had been thinking about a business that would teach technology to “late adopters,” both the tech adverse and older generations. A lover of gadgets, Holland was always playing with the latest technology, testing out apps, and troubleshooting devices. It all began with a class she called “Getting to Know your iPad” which she offered at a local community center. “Bingo! That was it. The class was full with a waiting list. I went to other community centers and started picking up one-on-one clients. It’s mostly coaching, filling in the gaps, and getting the client comfortable with the technology.”
That was two years ago and Tech Moxie continues to evolve. While Holland still does classes and works occasionally one-on-one with clients, she hires contractors to provide most of the services while she concentrates on growing the business. That has proven the biggest challenge thus far: “It’s a very scalable business, I want to go national, but I need to step back and see the bigger picture.”
Tech Moxie is all self-funded. To her husband’s dismay, Holland said she was “willing to live in a cave” to make this happen. Marketing has been her biggest expense, the website and branding and so on, but the loss of her corporate income has easily been the biggest startup cost. But this tech moxie is in it for the long haul.
“Sometimes I wish I had started sooner, but I’m not sure the market was ready. Tech needed to catch up. Mobile phones have really changed the game because, as people age, the accessibility features open up doors that were previously closed. I love when I show a client with Parkinson’s how to use Siri for example. Helping people understand the tech puzzle gives me such a sense of accomplishment and the best part is finally my time is my own.”
Tips from Pam Holland
Fake it! You don’t need to be an expert, just be confident … look for breadcrumbs.
The only way to learn how to run a business is to go through it.
Work on the most important issues first, not the easiest, otherwise you’ll never get to the big stuff!
Having an idea does not mean you can execute it. You need to think about the means to manufacture or produce something, but tech has definitely leveled out the playing field.
Lauren Laitin is owner of Parachute Coaching which provides clients with the structure, tools, and support, empowering them to clarify their goals and devise the strategies to achieve them.
I was standing at my trendy new desk, staring at the exposed brick walls of my hip, downtown office and trying not to panic. I had recently left the fast track at a leading corporate law firm to be a partner at a boutique legal group and, as early as day one, I knew that something was not right. On paper, everything was going according to plan – I was in a leadership position, had hopes of interesting work, and, for the first time in years, control over my schedule. But, for a variety of reasons, this new professional endeavor just wasn’t working.
As a woman who had always been confident in my choices, who moved forward with purpose and ambition, I was surprised that I was not happy in my new job. It was agonizing to think that I had made the wrong decision. Even scarier was the question I pondered every day while trying to dampen the anxiety:
“How soon can I leave without being a failure? Can I have a ‘gap’ on my resume?”
Without fully arriving at those answers, I told myself I would give it a little bit more time, but if my gut said go, I would. In short, I gave myself permission to accept that this move wasn’t right for me. I told myself it was okay to throw away the current plan, to accept that it wasn’t working and try something new. Indeed, things didn’t change and, almost exactly six months after that first day, I parted ways with the small firm and embraced the uncertainty of my next steps.
Ironically, taking the leap that had been so daunting and agonizing felt so freeing, energizing and RIGHT. For the first time in months, I did not feel panic. I felt calm, in control, and even excited. I turned to my laptop and typed “Parachute Coaching” on the screen.
When I was ready to leave big law, joining the boutique firm as partner seemed like it would be the perfect next step – or at least a great next step on my resume. By thinking in terms of a “solid” career trajectory first, I had tabled the idea that I had been contemplating for over five years – one that I had promised myself I would someday pursue … starting a professional coaching practice.
I was first introduced to coaching about five years prior when, shortly after returning to work from maternity leave with my first daughter, I attended a firm-sponsored presentation about work/life balance led by a professional coach. I was eager to get some advice on how to manage all my competing responsibilities. I had always been efficient, productive, and motivated, but – with an infant in my life – returning to my demanding job made tasks that had previously been quite doable, daunting and overwhelming. My to-do list had never been so long. I was riveted as I listened to the coach talk about defining goals, following internal rather than external expectations, and focusing on personal values. There was something about the soft intensity coupled with the clear opportunity to help people that made me sure that some day I would be presenting to a group of professionals about work/life balance.
The only question was when.
For years I continued to daydream about who my clients would be, what we would talk about, and what changes they would make. Within days of leaving the small firm, I knew the time was now.
The name Parachute Coaching had come to me immediately. When asked to choose one word to describe myself many years earlier, I had chosen “parachute,” because it is open, colorful, and adventurous. Within weeks, I had launched a website, enrolled in a coach certification program, and signed my first client. Four months later, I had more than 15 clients and had rented professional office space downtown.
“Ironically, taking the leap that had been so daunting and agonizing felt so freeing, energizing and RIGHT. For the first time in months, I did not feel panic. I felt calm, in control, and even excited.”
Once I committed to a career change, I realized this had been the right path for me all along. I am passionate about supporting my clients as they achieve their goals, and in so doing, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment from having achieved one of my own.
I made a conscious choice to focus on professional women because their advancement in the workforce has been top of mind for me for some time. Confidence is such an albatross for women in the workplace. By focusing on professional women, I can both make a difference in how individuals view themselves but also hopefully make a dent in the confidence epidemic overall.
I appreciate all the flexibility of having my own business. I work hard, but I finally have some time for myself. I can go to the gym, which is something I haven’t done consistently since my first daughter was born. I don’t HAVE to plug in at night anymore, although I love what I’m doing so I often do, and growing a business can be a-round-the-clock activity. My husband will remind me on occasion that sometimes it’s ok to wait until tomorrow.
When my clients talk to me about the “fear of failure,” I remember my own feelings of insecurity and anxiety over making the “wrong choice” when leaving the small firm. Now I know that was the best thing that could have happened to me. Admitting to myself that I was not happy, realizing I had to do something about it, and moving on, was an empowering experience. And most importantly, it makes me much more empathetic and aware of my clients’ concerns about similar transitions … been there, done that.
Tips from Lauren Laitin
Focus on what YOU want to do, not what others think you should do.
Embrace fear – it can really be a gift; let it motivate you to put pen to paper on what the new opportunity or new business plan could actually deliver.
Ask for help. There are lots of resources out there; getting objective advice can be eye-opening, empowering, and fun!
Jenny Karlsson is a pet photographer based in Pittsburgh. She shared her professional and personal journey from scientific research to photography with Career 2.0.
I’ve always loved nature and animals. It’s not surprising I guess as I was born and raised in a small village not far from Bjurholm, in northern Sweden, where I spent my weekends and summers working on my family’s dairy and potato farm. I left the farm for the lab when I went to study Biomedical Laboratory Science at Umea University and worked as a medical technologist analyzing patient samples in hospitals.
But my heart was pulling more towards the path of research and exploration and so, when I was invited to spend the summer after graduation at the Center for Biologic Imaging at the University of Pittsburgh, I simply couldn’t refuse. Once in Pittsburgh, I was offered a full-time position as a research specialist taking images, making movies of cells and tissues, and quantitating the response to different compounds.
While working full-time in the lab, I enrolled in a part-time MBA program at Katz Graduate School of Business with the idea that I would work for a microscope manufacturer or software company once I graduated, as others in the lab had previously done. I took up photography as a much-needed creative outlet when I wasn’t working or studying. I was mostly photographing still life and participating in photography forums such as Flickr until I came across a lifestyle dog photographer in Seattle … it blew my mind that pet photography could be a career. When I told my boss I had found my dream job, unsurprisingly she looked at me skeptically. And, even though I shelved the idea for a while, my dream remained constant.
Initially I started assisting local wedding photographers on weekends, becoming increasingly stronger in my technical abilities as a photographer and developing my vision as an artist and storyteller. About four years ago, I began volunteering at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, taking photos of dogs for their adoption profiles. It felt amazing to use my skills to give back while gaining valuable experience.
When I wasn’t working or studying, all my free time was given over to photography and building a client base. The demands on my time were hard as I also had just met my husband-to-be. After graduation, I spent most evenings and weekends working on my photography business. I continued working at the lab, where I’d happily been for a decade, until last year when I finally made the leap to photography full-time.
“No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.”
In the months before quitting, my husband and I went over all our personal expenses and reduced our spending, treating my salary as if it didn’t exist. We saved as much as possible so that, when I finally left, we had at least four months of living expenses in the bank. This really gave me confidence to make the move.
Although my ultimate dream was to become a pet photographer, I didn’t believe it would be possible to make a living if I specialized in animals. Talk about mental roadblock. Although I photographed pets, I also took family portraits and covered weddings and bar mitzvahs. Eventually I ended up with a pinched nerve, and the joint in my thumb was so out of alignment that I couldn’t even lift my Shepherd-Akita Alice’s water bowl. The business I had created allowed no time for photographing pets, and my body was literally screaming at me that something needed to change.
With the help of an amazing business coach (shout out to Emily Levenson of Propelle), I started re-shaping my business, changing my message, and aligning my passion with why I had started my business in the first place. It was incredibly liberating to narrow my focus and truly speak to my target client. At the same time, it was very difficult to let go of my beliefs of what it would take to make the jump. In the end, I did it. It was almost a harder thing to do than leaving the lab.
Following my passion rather than others’ expectations of what I should do was definitely the right decision. It can be challenging to have to self-promote constantly (this goes against the Scandinavian in me), but it’s so much fun when you find your “tribe” who value what you do. I love being in the driver’s seat, deciding how to run my business, what to say yes and no to, and how I grow as an individual, artist, and entrepreneur. It’s also hard work. Even though I have more time to devote to my business, I never feel like I’ve done enough in a day. I try not to work at night and don’t always succeed, but I live more intentionally now to make life more than work.
And in the end, saying I’m a pet photographer always results in interesting conversations. People want to know whether I’ve photographed snakes, spiders or the like. For the record, I hate snakes and only photograph dogs, cats, and rabbits … well at least for now as I recently discovered that one of my neighbors has a pet pig, and I am working up the courage to ask if I can photograph it. Liz if you are reading this, what do you say?
Design a life and business that makes you happy. Choose to do the things that are aligned with who you are as a person, and what excites you. If you’re not having fun in your business, why do it in the first place?
Run the numbers and figure out how much you need to cover your personal and business expenses for a certain amount of time. Equipped with this knowledge you can more confidently make the jump and go for your dream. The day may be closer than you think.
No matter how much you plan and prepare for it, you’ll never be completely ready or find the perfect moment to quit your job. At some point you just have to jump and trust that you’ve put in place a good foundation.
Don’t get caught in the comparison trap, everyone has their own struggles. Look at the big picture and be happy with what you’ve created.
Surround yourself with a diverse group of driven women in different industries and form a mastermind. Create an environment that fosters honest conversations, allows for vulnerability, and provides support and accountability. It’s hard to be a business owner, and it is immensely important to have a sounding board to share the wins, struggles and question marks with. Your spouse/partner will thank you!
Schedule regular self-care dates in whatever form you prefer. The body has a tendency to hold a lot of stress, and it is important to be kind to it and take care of it, otherwise burnout is just around the corner.
There is always more to do, and it is easy to sink into the “not enough” trap. Focus on celebrating the wins, and build momentum one day at a time.
The first line of Denise Roden’s scrapbook reads, “This is a book about me, for me.” You wouldn’t know it until you glance through those pages, but at one point in her life Roden weighed 265 lbs. It’s possible she weighed more but she can’t say for sure because she never stood on a scale until the morning of her life-changing bariatric surgery. Something else you wouldn’t know by looking at the confident blonde is that starting her own business at the age of 48 has been transformative – even more so than the surgery.
“I feel like I’m somebody now. I worked so many years in an unfulfilling job because I was following the money. Looking back I see how lost I was all of those years. Sometimes when you are overweight you lose your voice. Starting this business has given me my voice and self-esteem back. I did this. I left a well-paying job, but I finally took control. This is for me and no one else.”
Roden grew up in Alabama, north of Birmingham, in a typical Southern family. Raised on fried food and Hamburger Helper, weight was always an issue as she and her siblings rarely exercised and were not encouraged to spend a great deal of time outdoors. By high school, Roden weighed 200 lbs. She tried aerobics and played some sports, but the slow slide into obesity had begun, interrupted by spurts of yo-yo dieting.
Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Roden enrolled in college to become an elementary school teacher, but her heart wasn’t in it so she dropped out after two years. Ideally she would have done something with computers, but it was 1983 in Alabama and there weren’t many options for that type of career, especially for a young woman. She continued working odd jobs, toying with the idea of going back to school. She never did, though; instead marrying a soldier at the age of 23. The pair moved first to Virginia and then to Korea where he was stationed.
Weight gain continued to be a problem. “I tried everything. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, that crazy grapefruit diet. You name it, I did it. But nothing worked because I was looking for a quick fix rather than being mindful about what I was putting into my mouth and actually changing my lifestyle,” she recalls.
After Korea, the couple moved to Massachusetts, but the marriage was on the rocks. Roden took a secretarial position and taught herself how to use the Wang computer (remember those?). “I did a lot of payroll and accounting, and generally picked up the skills of whatever needed to be done. I was like a skills sponge,” she laughs.
Following his tour in Massachusetts, Roden’s husband was accepted into nursing school with the Army’s support and they moved to North Alabama where the marriage continued to flounder. “My parents had been married for over 40 years. I didn’t think divorce was an actual option and deep inside me, I really thought I could make it work. However, I just gained more weight.”
“I feel like I’m somebody now. I worked so many years in an unfulfilling job because I was following the money. Looking back I see how lost I was all of those years. Sometimes when you are overweight you lose your voice. Starting this business has given me my voice and self-esteem back. I did this. I left a well-paying job, but I finally took control. This is for me and no one else.”
After returning to school to get an associate degree in general studies, Roden held various office managerial positions and built her finance expertise. After several moves, the couple settled in suburban Washington DC, where Roden worked as Director of Finance and Administration at the non-profit Jewish Women International. She stayed for 14 years.
Four years after the move to DC and several counseling sessions later, the couple finally separated. When her husband got orders to go back to Korea, Roden declined to follow, choosing instead to do a BA in business administration while working full time. Around the same time, she began looking into bariatric surgery as a solution to her weight problem. She was suffering from a barrage of related health problems such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea and hypertension, and the surgery – a stomach or intestinal operation that helps obese patients lose weight – felt like the last option.
After a year of reflection, Roden decided to go for it. As she was still covered by spousal military benefits, the surgery, and accompanying tummy tuck and breast implants to adjust for excess skin were all covered. “I just had to buy the bra,” Roden laughs. “It was such a gift.”
Roden dropped 100 lbs relatively quickly and was transformed. She attended bariatric support group meetings and after getting certified by the Bariatric Support Center International (BSCI), became a support group leader, a task she enjoyed but found frustrating when noticing who was attending the sessions.
“It was the patients required by their insurance firms to be there as part of pre-op or the success stories. The people who really needed to be there, the ones experiencing what I call ‘the creep’ – the slow but steady weight regain – were not coming. I had always felt there was a number on the scale that, if crossed, would be a slow descent from which I’d never recover. So I vigorously fought off the weight regain by focusing on my own wellness and happiness.”
This proved to be challenging considering what she was experiencing at the office.
“I learned a lot in the 14 years at JWI but I also grew up during that time. I was 34 when I started working there. For many years, the salary and work motivated me, but when I hit my mid-40s, I was no longer happy. I didn’t feel valued and wanted something more fulfilling. I’d start crying on Sunday nights when thinking about work the next day.”
A way out finally presented itself when, about two years ago, Roden received an email from BSCI offering her the opportunity to purchase a license for their bariatric support curriculum. At this point, Roden was on meds for high blood pressure and anxiety so she felt she didn’t have much to lose. Her new “permanent fiancé” was encouraging Roden to make a change and was unequivocal in his recollection of those days, “He reminded me just last week, ‘Do you realize the first word out of your mouth every morning was shit! Do you know what it’s like to start your day next to someone who says that every morning?’ I guess it was tough on him too,” she says a little guiltily.
She considered the cost of the license, and determined that she could swing it with the income from her condo rental and some Army spouse benefits. She gave six months’ notice and filed for an LLC.
Today Roden operates the Bariatric Center for Success. She earned a health coaching certificate from Georgetown last year and offers several services targeted at weight-loss surgery patients. Her educational curriculums include “Success Habits™ of Weight Loss Surgery Patients” and “Back on Track™.”
“For me and the 200,000 Americans who undergo this surgery every year, it’s not the end of worrying about food. You think it is the solution – albeit a drastic one – to your problems, but unfortunately it’s not. You need to change your mindset too, otherwise it won’t work.”
Getting the business going hasn’t been easy. Although most insurance plans cover bariatric surgery they surprisingly do not cover educational support services prior to or after the fact, despite that about 50% of patients experience considerable weight regain between 3 and 5 years following surgery. They even pay for revisional surgery when patients relapse but don’t invest in the more cost-effective and less invasive approach of peer support on an ongoing basis. Roden is working to build up connections and partnering with local hospitals to get the support services covered by insurance.
“It’s taking some time but it’s so worth it. On Sunday nights now, I start thinking about the week ahead, what I am going to be doing. I get excited and that means more to me than anything. Especially because I am helping people defeat those sabotaging thoughts and behaviors that cause weight regain and be successful long-term.”
Tips from Denise Roden
It’s really difficult to do everything on your own. Working from home, I found it hard not to let personal demands eat into professional time. I joined a women’s co-working space (Hera Hub) to address both of these issues. I’ve met a lot of women who’ve given valuable support to my business, I’ve learned from others, and I’ve been more disciplined about my working hours.
Keep lines of communication open with those around you. They might not know how challenging what you’re trying to do is.
Also, be sure you have enough for start-up cost. For example: website, CMS, accounting package, etc. There are so many little things.
As the President of BSCI, Colleen Cook said, “Reach Further, Dream Bigger, Aspire Higher” That’s exactly what I aim to do!
Dawn Richardson had an unusual upbringing, but in a way one that made her the ideal candidate to take the leaps of faith required of an entrepreneur. “I was a gypsy kid and went to 20 different schools before I graduated from high school.”
Richardson’s mother was a 70’s hippie, roaming the West with her family living out of a school bus. She was the first female construction worker in the state of Utah, earning money where she could season-by-season and taking classes in small college towns along the way. “You might say she marched to the beat of her own drum,” says Dawn.
But to her daughter, it was normal, everyday life, and there were parts on the road Dawn loved. When it was time to go to college, Dawn headed to a small liberal arts school in Durango, Colorado, where she could explore lots of classes and go skiing. She got a degree in political science thinking that she might eventually head to Washington, DC and work in politics.
“My parents (Dawn’s mother married when Dawn was 13) had always pushed me to teach but I would protest, ‘I don’t want to go into that underpaid, female-dominated, and underappreciated profession,” she remembers. But ironically her desire to travel helped push her in that direction. The family travel bug got her, and she headed to Japan to see the world while earning money teaching English. She taught in Japan for two years, and then returned home and got a masters in education and a teacher’s license and, after brief forays teaching skiing, and then working for a cell phone company, headed back to the classroom.
“Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”
For the next 14 years, she taught social studies to high school students. Dawn loved teaching but felt it was time to move on. She felt additional pressure outside the classroom from parents and administrators and then a mysterious illness sidelined her and gave her time to think. “I got a virus that caused my spinal cord to swell and it really scared me. I thought it could be the stress of teaching or just being around all those germs. We still don’t know what it was. Suddenly I was faced with my own mortality and I realized, I’m not happy and I need to change that.”
Dawn and her husband, a software developer, had always talked about opening their own business some day. “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”
Together they investigated several options including a beer garden, but were deterred by the enormous start up costs of upwards of a million dollars. But when they really started looking at the business, they realized the largest profit is made in alcohol. Then a story on the evening news about local distilleries caught their attention. Looking at the viability of that kind of business, it seemed to make sense.
They started slowly. Her husband continued working and Dawn got her real estate license so they could bring some money in as they were starting up.
They consulted with another distillery in Colorado where they live, and read lots and lots about the business. Then they began experimenting by making wine and beer. When they felt comfortable, they went all in. Cashing in 401Ks, and selling a rental property they owned, the Richardson’s were able to cover the start up costs of property and equipment. Additional business and home equity lines of credit covered them through a few months of operating.
They launched Rising Sun Distillery with a line of gin and vodka. Their niche? Local, organic, non-GMO products. And just five months into the business, they are also recipe testing some peach vodka and a pear brandy to expand their product offering soon. While any entrepreneur knows that making the product is just the beginning, the Richardson’s count themselves lucky to be launching in Colorado.
“First of all, alcohol is a highly desirable product. But also, we live in a state where we can go door-to-door and sell our product because liquor stores are all privately owned.”
While her husband and her mother take the lead on outside sales, Dawn develops the recipes and manages the in-house tasting room where they feature their liquors in a range of artisanal cocktails.
In the short four months since they’ve opened, Rising Sun can now be found in 25 different bars and liquors stores in Colorado. Slowly but surely, they are growing the business.
“It’s a bit scary for sure. We’re not paying our bills with profits yet but we’re seeing signs that sooner rather than later, that will happen. But there’s so much to learn in this industry and I feel like we’re just babies starting out. But it’s really fun.”
Richardson’s one regret? Her freewheeling childhood gave her a comfort with risk taking, but it didn’t give her any mentors in business. I’d love to talk to other women who are doing this because it can be hard and that would be a nice support.”
Tips from Dawn Richardson
Assess your comfort level with risk, if you are not a risk taker and are not comfortable with the worst case scenario, then opening a business might not be the best choice.
Working for yourself is a 24 hour job. The satisfaction of working for yourself far outweighs working for someone else, but it is very hard to leave work at home and have a work life balance.
There is so much more to opening a business than I first thought, and a lot of the tasks are not in my skill set. It is important to know when to outsource and when to hire help or when to join with others.
Eliza Lucas is Owner and Operator of Top Dog, an all-American, hot dog and fried clam shop based in Rockport, Massachusetts. She shared with Career 2.0 the story of how this small business got its start.
Very few people would think of opening a hot dog stand as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. And indeed it isn’t. But looking back, it was the best decision my husband, Scott, and I ever made.
It was 2001 and we were living in the metro Boston area. Scott, who had just been laid off at his tech startup, was working as a disc jockey on Boston radio and I was video producer, but we both knew we wanted to do something else. We had always hoped to move to the North Shore (coast of Massachusetts) because it seemed like the ideal place to raise a family, and I wanted to offer my children something like what I had when I spent my summers there as a child.
We settled on Rockport, MA – an idyllic place with a great school system. My grandmother had owned a shop there while I was growing up and Scott and I had often kicked around the idea of doing something similar. But opening a shop on Bearskin Neck was a dream that, frankly, we never thought would come true.
Then we had a major stroke of luck … the Portside Chowder House restaurant, at the time a Rockport staple, changed locations and their old spot on Bearskin Neck became available. If we had known back then just how hard it would be to get our little hot dog shop off the ground, we likely never would have taken such a gigantic gamble. The building needed to be totally gutted, we weren’t married yet we were taking this huge life-step together. We had no plan and no money.
Minor details – we dove in!
What we did have was a belief – one that has served us well ever since. We were sure we didn’t need to come up with some sort of spectacular breakthrough product in order to have a successful business. We believed in the idea of glorifying something basic. That is to say, you can take something simple and if you do it really well, customers will appreciate it and they will come back for more. Bearskin Neck didn’t have a hot dog stand at the time, there was a building available, and Top Dog was born thanks to a loan from the local small-business-friendly bank, Rockport National Bank (now part of Institution for Savings).
Everyone has heard that tired old phrase “if I’d known then what I know now,” but I’m being completely serious when I say that the only reason we did this was because we were young and naive. Top Dog has grown every year that we’ve been in business. However I think every new business owner underestimates just how long it will take before you start seeing actual results. We couldn’t afford any additional help, so either Scott or I had to work the restaurant at all times.
Looking back, that may have actually been the secret to our success. Because we did everything ourselves, we kept total quality control over our product. We know now that a hot dog stand on Bearskin Neck was a pretty good idea. But it would never have worked out if our food had been mediocre. We don’t just sell hot dogs – we sell really good hot dogs! With effort, and no other options, we somehow succeeded in making the ordinary extraordinary.
However, the second Top Dog actually started to grow, we faced a new challenge. We are a seasonal business and, once we could actually afford help, we had a hard time finding it. As soon as we got staff trained it was time to close shop for the winter. It was a vicious cycle that really frustrated us early on.
It was then that we found even more reasons to be thankful that we’re based in Rockport. People have a real attachment to this town, and they quickly grew to love Top Dog. We were shocked by how much everyone genuinely wanted us to succeed. A lot of people in the Rockport business community had laughed at the idea of a hot dog stand, but they also were always willing to lend us anything we were running out of and were legitimately interested in our success. I vividly recall talking to Kenny Porter of Roy Moore Lobster Co. in our first year in business and, when I mentioned that we would be competitors, he simply said he didn’t look at it that way and was more concerned with having as many high quality establishments in town as possible (though he later told me he thought we’d be gone in a year!).
We struggled at first, but we were eventually able to build a part-time employee network, comprised of people who even today are always willing to drop everything and help us when we need them. We still have a cook who comes in at any time. And one of our girls has been coming back every summer for ten years (this will be her last, as she’s graduating from college).
As we’ve established ourselves, we’ve been able to slowly branch out, and now we constantly tweak our offerings to suit our changing customer base. We began selling clams in 2008 – we couldn’t afford to be one dimensional, plus we had to add a more expensive price point because, if every sale were a hot dog, we’d have had to up the foot traffic through the restaurant to a level that wasn’t feasible. We do well off the tourist market, but we also do our best to cater to the locals (99 cent hot dog night is still something we do mostly for the local crowd, as it’s very much an “in the know” event).
I don’t know if there ever was, or ever will be, an “aha” moment where we’ll suddenly decide we made it. But we were named Best Fried Clams on the Northshore by Northshore Magazine in 2014 (and again in 2015!), which put our clams on the map. But more importantly every week of the summer someone stands up and says “that was the best ___ I’ve ever had.” That’s really what keeps us going. If it weren’t for accolades like that, we’d have both quit a long time ago.
After nearly 15 years in business, Top Dog is still growing. We’ve brought it to a point now where Scott runs the restaurant and I run the business. We’re even considering opening a second location. But we would only do it if we could run it ourselves, because the quality of our food is really what’s made us successful. Even now that we’ve grown, we make our own tartar sauce and source the highest quality local clams and lobsters.
We started out with the idea of glorifying something basic, and that remains the foundation of Top Dog today.
Mary Lou Bradley worked for the man who created Three’s Company, a TV show those of us of a certain age will remember. She also worked for Bill DeBlasio before he was the mayor of New York City. She went to culinary school and learned to make pastries. And then, at age 55, she became an entrepreneur. (more…)
Former teacher Whitney Reeves is the co-founder of Bitzy Baby, a juvenile safety product company with a mission to instill confidence in parents that when their babies are put to bed they’ll sleep safely. Bitzy Baby’s signature product offers a solution for parents seeking a safe alternative to the traditional crib bumper. Reeves reflects on her experiences of starting a new business.
You’re Never Ready
“You’re never ready” is something I heard a lot before my husband, Seabren, and I had children of our own. It’s a phrase I also said as a former elementary teacher to parents as their children went off to the next grade. And it’s what I say to anyone with an idea that they are passionate enough to explore further. And yet, that phrase is a reminder of how “never being ready” means be brave anyway! Have the courage to jump in because you learn more from experience than anything else and because no one else has the exact same experiences as you. You’re the only perfect fit for that next adventure!
The Birth of Bitzy
I have a rare genetic gene that made my pregnancies high risk and, facing our infant’s potential fragility, we wanted the safest environment possible. It was during this time that the idea of Bitzy began. Safe sleeping shouldn’t be complicated. As a problem solver and believer in figuring out what you don’t understand, I felt compelled to do what I taught my students every day: be brave and try. After analyzing all the critical features needed for a safe sleeping environment, I designed the crib bumper solution. A product that provides not only modern, collapsible and preventative features but also creates a cushioned, breathable environment essential for infants sleeping up to 16 hrs/day. What began for Seabren and I as a product has transformed into a mission advocating for the safe sleeping of all infants.
When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up.
Recognizing a NEED
As consumers and producers, we don’t make a purchase without an emotional connection. It may be the specific scent of a shampoo, the texture of a shirt, or the desire to be part of a group of consumers. And that is often the exact reason why entrepreneurs create something. Because they ARE the consumer wanting what isn’t available yet. As parents of a newborn, with busy careers and a new home, we were expected to do the traditional thing and settle down. But Seabren and I aren’t the conventional type so we took on the birth of an additional “baby” and launched a company.
A Supportive Cofounder Does Matter
My husband and I are opposites but our differences make for a perfect fit in our business relationship. Unlike most start-ups, we’re able to pause to focus on our family time and then dive into projects after our boys’ bedtime until the wee hours of the morning. Our “meetings” consist of nachos, dreaming big, finalizing priorities, and winding down with a favorite rerun to cap off the night.
Because we’re opposites, Seabren knows not to speak only in numbers and I don’t need to explain why I chose a specific color or graphic. We respect our different areas of expertise and challenge ourselves rather than each other and, because of that, we are the perfect cofounders. And although we’re opposites, we’re both dreamers and doers, so it’s key that we support each other in our strengths but, more importantly, our weaknesses.
Start-up Goals Outweigh Challenges
There is no manual! You’re signing up to start something that will require some creativity to make it a reality. You’ve got to have a passion that’s rooted in something so much more. When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up. It’s in those moments that you have to feel passion for what you are doing rather than simply wanting to produce something or make money.
Three Invaluable Words: Focus, Framework & Finance
As someone with a newborn infant diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, in the throes of renovating an old home and starting a new company, there are three important words I have always kept in mind: finance, focus, and framework.
No matter what you are balancing at home, launching a startup takes guts and it’s tough to find the financial resources to make it a reality. You have to make sacrifices. Every day, you must focus on your business and carve time out, trading sleep for extra coffee. But developing the right framework for converting your idea into a business will make things easier and that requires planning. You must become an expert in your field.
Overall, you have to recognize your success is based on your strengths and weaknesses. Establishing a support network that helps you succeed, finding creative financial resources, and having the drive to continue when things become challenging are ingredients for creating your perfect career 2.0.
There are two things that Tina Ambrogi dreamed about as a child growing up in Massachusetts: living in the San Francisco area, and building a tunnel between her home and the house where family members lived next door. She envisioned this tunnel as a place where artists could hang out, where people would barter and trade goods. “That never happened,” she says wryly.
But it’s a funny thing about childhood dreams; maybe they don’t ever really go away. (more…)
As a young girl in Washington State, Nicole Morgenthau dreamed of being a doctor – a dream she held onto almost all the way through her college career at Virginia Wesleyan. But, in her senior year, it dawned on her that it was still going to be a really long time until she actually got to work in the field. Twelve more years of training seemed daunting, and, simultaneously, her English professor approached her and suggested she consider a career in literature, an area that seemed to be a natural fit for her. So Nicole pursued a focus in creative writing and ironically, instead of diving into a career right away, went on to get a masters in literature at Old Dominion University. (more…)
Laura Beck is chief shirt schlepper of www.stripedshirt.com, a failed start-up. Based in Austin, Texas, five years ago Laura launched a tee-shirt company on the premise customers would want to show their support for teams and organizations by wearing their colors in stripes. Nearly a month ago, she went public with her breakup with stripedshirt, and launched a Kickstopper. In 4 weeks, she’s been floored by the response (138,000+ Facebook and 7,000+ YouTube views of the video). She (along with her unpaid interns – her 70-year-old mom and 10- and 6–year-old daughters) packaged up and shipped over 400 orders: that’s 1,000 shirts sold! So, after all this Kickstopper buzz and love, Laura felt it was a good time to think through what missteps she took with stripedshirt and perhaps spare other entrepreneurial types some of her pain.
To paraphrase Frank Sinatra – MISTAKES, I’ve made a few!
1. It Was All About ME
That was by design, I had done 18 years of PR agency life, 10 running an agency and leading an amazing team of 16 people. But I was burnt out, fried from managing others, especially aggressive young guns new in their careers and eager to advance. I wanted to do stripedshirt entirely on my own. NO WAY I was taking any outside funding. First of all, I didn’t need it (again, I worked 18 years, I had savings), and second, I’ve seen the good and bad of VC-funded startups doing PR for them for years. This was also MY dream, and no one else would be as passionate about it. I didn’t bring in any partners, I wasn’t beholden to anyone! I could do it my way (Sinatra again! J). Well, turns out, a partner or two, they’ll hold your feet to the fire.
2. Over-Architecting the Website
I did some homework, but while I do tech PR, I’m not that technical, and I went with Magenta, an open-source shopping cart for ecommerce sites, and I had that thing built big from the start. I wanted to be able to expand like crazy, assuming (hoping), I’d grow, add products like long-sleeved stripes, tanks, striped beach towels, waterbottles, flash drives, and bikinis (I’m not kidding, these were on my roadmap). If I knew then … I’d have done a simple Word Press template. I would have worked with Volusion, BigCommerce, WP Engine (in my defense, none of these guys had the amazing SMB website offerings they have now back in 2010). Any of these providers likely would have saved me money as well as pain, as I put $10,000 into that cludgy website. I also went with Paypal for payment processing so I wouldn’t have to do my own SSL, my own security. And wow, Paypal + Magenta is just wonky. If I totaled up all my abandoned shopping carts, there’d be a lot fewer shirts in my garage!
BLERG! Again, with absolutely no background in fashion or apparel, I did some homework, but really just went for it. Through an amazing guy here in Austin, I was connected to some factories in India, and they took me on. But to do so, and to really show my concept, I committed to 14 different color combinations and 15 sizes. For each, to do the manufacturing, I committed to about 50 of each size of each color, with a few exceptions. You do the math. We are talking over 10,000 shirts!
And I had some colors move and needed reorders (hello, what is up with the popularity of red and white stripedshirts? I should have started RED stripedshirt, it would have been a lot more successful!) Then there were other colors that absolutely sit there. I thought my Ohio State connections from growing up in Columbus OH would make my red and gray stripes fly off the shelves. But it is my absolute slowest mover! In the end, of the 10,000 shirts, I sold (or gifted – more on that below) about 4,000 in 5 years. I’ve written off some, but about 6,000 are still in my garage today!
Now, again, if I knew then …. I should have done market testing, started with small sets of shirts, only ordered colors that were actually moving. But, there are not a lot of manufacturing options for apparel startups. It’s a pretty brutal industry all around. Margins absolutely stink. I was lucky to find someone to take on what I thought was a mammoth order, but for them, it was teeny. I couldn’t find a way to do small, test-run inventory orders.
And when I did get my inventory, 10,000 shirts arrived in a semi on pallets – that’s pretty overwhelming for one 40-year-old mom to figure out, organize, track, and manage. I quickly had no idea what I had, what I didn’t. It was too much, too overwhelming.
I could go on and on here about the problems with fast food fashion in America, all the bad stuff I hope our apparel industry sorts out soon. That cotton is still grown in the US but shipped overseas for “cut and sew” and then shipped back is absolute insanity. That factory conditions in Bangladesh, but also East LA, are so dismal should not be happening today. And that the size and scale of orders from Forever 21 and H&M give us shoppers $5 t-shirts, but other apparel hopefuls no prayer of competing, is depressing but very, very real.
4. The Premise Didn’t Work
The idea of stripedshirt – to show your colors, support your favorite team or school –absolutely did not fly. The sales I’ve gotten are mostly women ordering stripes they like. I hardly believe all the navy and white orders I’ve had are really Yankees fans ( as a Red Sox fanatic, I guess I hope not). And, when I had the idea, 20 years ago, fan-wear options just for women were really limited. Now there are tons of options – Alyssa Milano, Victoria Secret, college Ts at Old Navy. I also bet on women wanting to do “Mommy and Me” combos with their children, what I call the Lilly Pulitzer effect. Didn’t happen, those sales didn’t come.
Funny enough, my biggest sales weeks on the calendar were mid-September to mid-October. Yes, Halloween. Turns out there are a lot of costumes that incorporate stripes – Where’s Waldo surely, but also Olivia the Pig, Doc McStuffins, Pirates, French, even Freddy Krueger. While these were real sales and money in, it was kind of depressing to think someone bought a stripedshirt for a one-day-a-year costume.
5. Marketing Alone Does Not a Company Make
This one was the hardest pill to swallow because remember, before stripedshirt, I was an 18-year PR veteran. I KNOW MARKETING. I’m good at it. I thought I had this part in the bag! I thought I could build stripedshirt entirely on marketing, on PR, on word of mouth and buzz. I knew better. Way better. For 18 years, I told clients “PR is AIRCOVER for sales.” You need integrated marketing and a sales strategy. But in 5 years, I was the sales team, and I’m not a very good salesperson. I never brought on any agents or distributors, I never figured out deals with stores, or even built a network in retail. I also never did any paid search or Google ad words. I relied fully on organic search, which was very strong, but not strong enough to carry a business. I never even put in place a CRM system to continue to communicate with customers who had already bought – and hopefully loved – a stripedshirt.
Finally, I put all my trust and hope in influencers and bloggers. I gave away more shirts than I care to count to fashion bloggers to do a review with a great write up and high quality photo spread, and then do a giveaway. Lots of raffle copters out there with thousands of people putting in their chance for a free stripedshirt. I wrongly figured many of those, not getting the free shirt, would come to buy. They did not. I appreciate all the support and buzz my fashion bloggers gave stripedshirt, but make no mistake, they did not produce sales. Way too much inventory went out with very little return. I knew better. I know what integrated marketing is required to create and grow a business, I’ve counseled people on this for 20 years. But I didn’t put most of it into action for my own business.
6. Distracted by my Comfort Zone
When I started stripedshirt, the idea was to leave an 18-year PR career and do something completely new and different. That lasted one month. Thirty days into it all and I had already taken on a client on the side. Generally, for the past 5 years, I’ve been doing PR consulting for upwards of 6 clients at any one time. I hold it to about 20 hours a week. But we all know a startup is a 110% commitment. Between time with my girls, and PR consulting, stripedshirt kept taking a back seat. It was far too easy to fall back into my comfort zone, to do what I was good at, versus trying to figure out this new stripedshirt world that was hard, and complicated, and not showing any signs of success. Doing PR consulting may have kept my ego secure and my confidence up, and my wallet not completely empty of spending money, but helping others with their businesses majorly distracted me from focusing on my own.
And so, now, 5 years later, I’ve broken up with stripedshirt publicly and I’m turning back to the PR consulting I know well, including, it turns out, PR for the stripedshirt failure. Perhaps the best PR I’ve ever done – for a failure, for the closing of a business. Not exactly something you want to do a case study on to share with future clients, unless they too want to shut down their businesses!
Again, these past 2 weeks have been so amazing, very liberating and freeing to admit defeat – a relief to come clean about my failed business. Most everyone has been very supportive, and amused. Seems there are a lot of kindred spirits out there who also gave entrepreneurship a go and didn’t have smashing success. I appreciate the people who have reached out to cheer me on, even to thank me for sharing my story.
There have been some hecklers, and negative comments, make no mistake. People who said I had no business starting a business, and of course it failed, what a bad idea, and bad execution. There certainly is a lot of truth in what they say as you can see from the six mistakes I’ve detailed above. I remain proud to be public in my failure and again, hope my sharing can support others who’ve gone through this, or will go through this. Or, maybe, my stripedshirt Kickstopper, and the lessons learned, will give some guidance and tips for others of how to give their own business a better fighting chance!
Watch the Kickstopper video, when you enter “kickstopper” at checkout, you’ll get to 50% off your order.
By the time her two daughters were in their preteens, Pam Shields realized that the frequent travel her job in the IT industry demanded no longer worked for her and her family. She wanted to be home more, more available to her kids. So in 1999 she left a high-paying, fast-track job in the corporate world to pursue something that had always interested her: personal fitness.
She also knew she had good managerial and leadership skills, and so by January 2000 she had already started her new physical fitness business. But it wasn’t without trade-offs. “My income,” she says bluntly, “decreased by about 95%. I went from a six-figure salary to almost nothing.” (more…)