By Patrick Kelley
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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-
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."