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  Fall 2002

Entrepreneurial Energy
 
The hours are endless, the profits feast or famine,
but the boss is unbeatable: you. Seven fellow alumni invite you to consider the hardest job you'll ever love-your own small business

By Patrick Kelley

I love to create things," says John Crabbe '75, explaining how he parlayed a bankruptcy-sale tent purchased on a whim into a multimillion-dollar business.

"It's just like that Survivor show. I'm always testing myself," says Marc Roberts '95, of FirmWorks, his information technology consultancy based in Asheville, North Carolina.

"I'm in control. I don't have a boss. The harder I work, the more rewards I get, which doesn't always happen when you work for other people," says Judy Bradley '83, owner of The Body Shop, the hair- and skincare-product franchise.

When we asked some of Champlain's hundreds of graduate entrepreneurs to tell their stories, we expected enthusiasm. And we got it. But we were taken by the depth of emotion that a business built from the ground up inspires in the person who made it all happen. The owners we spoke with studied in every field, and their businesses ranged from fragile startups to established concerns with millions in sales. The common thread tying these alumni entrepreneurs together is a willingness to take risks and an intense desire to transform passion into action. They told us how they turned their talent, energy and dreams of independence into sustainable companies. Their experiences illuminate one of the most challenging and rewarding journeys a professional can make: moving from employee to owner.

Taking the Plunge

"I started quite by accident," says John Crabbe, owner of the Vermont Tent Company in South Burlington. This, perhaps, is a politically incorrect thing for a former winner of the Small Business Council of America's top award to say. And, in fact, Crabbe uses his salesman's platinum tongue to quickly add a caveat: "Of course, I now completely advocate doing a business plan."

In 1976, Crabbe was bouncing from business to business, moving from catering to close-out sales with the ease of a born entrepreneur. So when a bank called, looking to liquidate a huge party tent on the cheap, it was only natural that he and his partner saw an opportunity. Crabbe called around to gauge rental rates on his find, liked what he heard, and for the next decade he rented it out as a summer sideline. In 1985, he got serious, buying out his partner and founding Vermont Tent. Sales ballooned from $40,000 then to $3 million now as the company grew from two to 100 employees. "It's gone better than my wildest expectations," Crabbe says.

Susan Petrie '86, in contrast, isn't setting her expectations too high just yet. The co-owner of Green Mountain Gift Basket is just beginning her business journey. She purchased a stake in the existing firm because she wanted to change her life. After years of working as a stay-at-home mom and in part-time office jobs, her son was graduating from high school and her personal life was changing.

"I just had an urge to do something different," she says. "I didn't want to always work for other people, so I just jumped into it." So far, despite a tough economy, her slick website (www.greenmountaingiftbasket.com) and attractive collections of Vermont products have been enthusiastically received and she's sent products as far away as Scotland. Petrie, who deliberately bought into the business after the busy holidays, is using the slow season to refine her product line, develop her marketing materials and otherwise learn the ropes.

That kind of on-the-job training is a viable approach for a home-based firm with low start-up costs, but a more capital-intensive enterprise, says Chip Schlegel '95, is a different manner. Schlegel, a rock-climbing enthusiast since his undergraduate years, opened the 6,000-square-foot Petra Cliffs Climbing Center in Burlington in 2000. Schlegel, a relentless entrepreneur, had already opened two businesses before Petra Cliffs and he wanted to benefit from his past mistakes as much as possible.

"In the excitement and joy of creating a business from nothing," Schlegel admits, "you can get wrapped up in thinking about the good parts, and fail to plan for the 'what-if' scenarios, like what if you open and no one shows up." His recommendation for prospective business owners-
appropriately for a climber and cyclist-boils down to legwork. "You've got to analyze every aspect of the business before you start," he says. (For more start-up advice from a Champlain expert, see "So You Want Your Own Business")

That's advice that Marc Roberts, owner of a technology consulting and installation business, would echo. He purchased an established firm and worked there for three months to get to know the business inside out. Better still, Roberts, a criminal justice major, has several law offices among his core clients. He was instantly at home in their milieu because of his academic experiences and internships at Champlain. The fit is so comfortable that Roberts advises prospective business owners to purchase an established firm if possible, ideally one that leverages their established skills and relationships.

"You don't have to go through the trial and error of finding a niche and figuring out what services are profitable and which ones aren't," he says. "And you know that eventually you'll be able to pay the rent, even as you go through that scary time early on when you have more money going out than coming in."

Enjoying the Action

The "scariness" Roberts alludes to is a fact that all the entrepreneurs we spoke to have faced. The increased freedom of owning a small business, they say, comes at the price of increased responsibility and anxiety-and that extra anxiety is a cost that a prospective business owner should weigh very carefully. But if the worries caused by having so many obligations are pressing (Roberts says he can't take a vacation without being prepared to return early if a client has an emergency), the pressure heightens the pleasure of success.

"It's very exciting to know that I'm the one who is responsible for making the decision, making the client say yes," says Eileen Dudley '86, who left her position as a business executive to open Tall Girl Marketing. "You feel directly the rewards of your efforts. It's intense." And with a small business, your efforts truly are your own. Roberts explains: "If you ever worked at a company and ever said, 'Why don't we do it this way?', well, now you can do it your way. You have the power."

Working within a large organization owned and controlled by others, Dudley continues, tends to smooth out the work experience. The highs aren't as high as they are with your own firm; of course, barring a layoff, the lows aren't as low, either. When you open a business, Champlain entrepreneurs say, the division between work and private life ends. The two spheres merge, bringing greater potential for reward, as well as greater accountability.

"When you start a business, you do it all," says Crabbe of Vermont Tent. "I worked crazy hours. I did the payroll, everything. A consultant eventually told me that you have got to start letting go. But in the beginning you can't underestimate the commitment of time and energy. When you own your own business, 24 hours a day you are thinking about it. You're even dreaming about it."

If that kind of total commitment scares you, we won't even talk about the money. A professional services business-a one-person accounting, consulting or financial-planning shop-won't require much to start up. But opening a retail franchise or purchasing an existing firm can eat up lots of your capital. Judy Bradley, who opened her store on Burlington's tony Church Street Marketplace with her husband, advises talking through your plan with as many people as possible before you make your move. "It's a scary amount of money you have to borrow," she says. "But if you're ready, just take the step. It's scary, but definitely rewarding."

Those rewards, Bradley says, include flexibility, freedom and financial possibility. But she, along with several other small business owners we spoke with, also cited building a great staff as one of the largest, yet most enjoyable, challenges of business ownership. John Crabbe puts it this way: "When I look at how many people have been here for so long, I know that I've done something right. I've made great friends; they aren't all just employees."

Keeping It Going

But even with great employees and a motivated owner, small-business owners face risk. The Champlain entrepreneurs we interviewed returned to the topic again and again: planning and hard work to minimize it, building a solid team to distribute it. But even with savvy and planning, risk remains. The most recent statistics from the federal Small Business Administration show that two-thirds of all small businesses last at least two years. About half make it four years and 40 percent survive for six years. Those odds are decent, but Susan Petrie of Green Mountain Gift Basket prefers to look beyond them.

"You get so much experience by trying to own your own business that you can't possibly get from a book or classroom," she says. "You get new skills that can't be developed any other way, so even if your business fails you've come out ahead."

Her view isn't unusual. Almost 60 percent of entrepreneurs report that "they were successful" at the time their business closed. With 14 years spent running what has become a four-store chain of outdoor-sports stores in the Vermont mountains with her husband, Suzanne Rice '79 isn't planning on closing her business anytime soon. But she's well aware of the passion that carries other entrepreneurs through business after business, skill after skill, as they pursue their goals. For her, starting and maintaining her business boils down to having fun.

"We followed our dream; this is something we've always wanted. To achieve your dreams, you have to walk through them, take your time, plan, have a vision," she says. "And just enjoy yourself-that's the most important part of having a business and everything else."

So You Want Your Own Business
If you're yearning to ditch that day job and turn your dreams into one of America's 22.4 million small businesses, Sharron Angolano is your woman for expert advice. The entrepreneur, accountant and professor in Champlain's business and management department is passionate about the rewards of opening a business.
"You get to take credit and profit for your own successes; you get to be creative, to try things,"she says.
But as enthusiastic an advocate for entrepreneurship as she is, she's well aware of how many fledgling companies fail for lack of expertise, capital or a well-defined market. So Angolano recommends that prospective entrepreneurs take the following steps before taking the plunge into self-employment:
_ _
Know yourself. Entrepreneurs are dreamers and risk-takers. "Most don't end up millionaires," she says bluntly. Angolano adds that prospective business owners should assess their ability and need to take risk. Some may wish to wait for a safe time in their life to make the big move.
Get some training. Studies show that developing your financial, marketing, management and technical skills make your business 80 percent likelier to succeed. Returning to campus for a class or two is an easy way to add to your tool-box of talents.
Do your homework. Talk to people. Survey them, even. Think about who your customers are, find them and determine what they need, how much they will buy, and why they will buy it from you. The legwork will help you identify your niche.
Put it on paper. Take your research and turn it into a specific, detailed business plan, what Angolano calls an "exercise in reality." Getting to the point where you can write a good plan, 25 pages of detailed analysis, is a huge step toward success.
Get into the community. Isolation is bad for your health-and your business. You'll do and feel better, Angolano says, if you get out into the community and network with others in your field.

 


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