Lakeland entrepreneurs open up about the challenges and rewards of running your own business
Story by Jarrett Smith • Photography by Dustin Prickett
It’s hard to overstate America’s love affair with the entrepreneur. From our elementary school lessons about the Pilgrims and the industrious immigrants of the 19th century, to the modern-day celebration of innovators like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, it’s safe to say that we’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of the entrepreneur.
In recent years, it seems the idolization of entrepreneurs has experienced a new burst of energy. This is especially true of the go-it-alone, against-all-odds kind of entrepreneurship popularized by movies like The Social Network and The Pursuit of Happyness and exalted in breezy speeches by moguls like Richard Branson and Gary Vaynerchuck. But, it’s hard to say what someone like George Jenkins would think about the romanticized brand of entrepreneurship promoted by today’s media. Without question, Jenkins’ own entrepreneurial experience had all the hallmarks of grit, risk, and sheer determination we’ve come to celebrate, but viewed by themselves, these qualities form an incomplete picture and cause us to overlook the less glamorous realities and sacrifices of everyday entrepreneurship.
By many measures, starting a business is easier than it’s ever been. As Steve Scruggs, executive director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council (LEDC) points out, “It takes less capital to start up a business today than any time in the history of the world.” According to Scruggs, entrepreneurship’s recent surge in popularity is the result of several factors. First, during the economic meltdown of 2008, many workers found themselves out of work and with few prospects for re-employment. As a result, people who otherwise wouldn’t have started their own businesses, began to see self-employment as an option.
Scruggs also points to the role of the Internet and its related technologies.
Computers and the Internet have changed the world and significantly lowered the barriers to entry to start a business, from access to capital to creating a product in a short time frame.
And it’s hard to argue against Scrugg’s point. Using online services like Shopify, Squarespace, and Etsy, entrepreneurs can begin selling their products online in the time it takes to register a website and upload photos. Even raising capital — historically one of the most difficult barriers to starting a business — has been revolutionized. Through crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter, Peerbackers, and Indiegogo, would-be entrepreneurs and innovators can pitch their ideas to the masses in the hopes of raising funds. According to Kickstarter’s website, in 2013 the platform was used to gather over $480 million in pledges from approximately 3 million people, resulting in 19,911 successfully funded projects. To date, 1,395 Kickstarter projects have raised over $100,000, and 78 have raised over $1,000,000. Finally, Scruggs points to a broader mainstream acceptance of entrepreneurship as a viable means of employment. “Over 2,000 post-secondary institutions offer entrepreneurship and small business certificates,” he explains, “which is up over 900 percent from 10 years ago. Also, people perceive that being their own boss is attractive.”
NO FREE RIDES
While starting a business may be easier than in the past, it’s still not easy. Sobering data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only about half of new businesses survive longer than five years, and only a third will make it 10 years or longer. Entrepreneurial success, it seems, depends on an elusive, almost mysterious, cocktail of factors, not the least of which is the would-be entrepreneur’s work ethic and ability to recover from setbacks.
Todd Baylis is president and co-founder of Qgiv and Cipher Integrations, two established and growing technology start-ups here in Lakeland. A Lakeland native, Todd started Cipher Integrations while in high school and eventually spun-off Qgiv as a stand-alone company when he realized Cipher’s clients needed an online platform for collecting donations. “I don’t think entrepreneurship is for everyone,” Todd says.
A lot of times we only celebrate the people who are successful, so it kind of looks like professional baseball. We only see the major league players, but for every one major league player there are a hundred laying in waste. Starting a business is stressful, and there are huge risks.
That sentiment is echoed by Joshua Watson, CEO and founder of IronRock Software, a three-year old software consultancy based out of Catapult, the Lakeland Economic Development Council’s co-working space, located in downtown Lakeland. “It’s not as easy as it looks,” Watson says. “I had several products that flopped before they even got off the ground. You can’t pack up your ball and go home the first time something doesn’t work out.”
Even when an entrepreneur has identified a product or service with enough demand to sustain a business, the challenges aren’t over. As Steve Madden, founder of Madden Branded Goods and Madden Brand Agency, recounts, “One of the biggest challenges was just getting large prospects and major suppliers to take you seriously when you’re in your early twenties.” Madden goes on to explain how in the early days of Madden Branded Goods, he’d just moved his business out of his house and into a 6×10 closet on the fourth floor of his father’s commercial real-estate office. “Miraculously, we’d made the final cut of three suppliers bidding on a mid-six-figure opportunity. One day the bathrooms were out on the fourth floor, and while I was downstairs using the bathroom, the buyer called. Since I was out, my dad’s secretary answered the phone and explained I was on the second floor and would be back to the fourth floor soon. The buyer commented that he didn’t realize we were that large and he would look for my return call.” While Madden’s company would eventually finish second in the bid, he cites the incident as an important and valuable lesson on the role of perception when courting larger clients.
NO ENTREPRENEUR IS AN ISLAND
Popular culture often celebrates the image of the lone entrepreneur who somehow manages to succeed against all odds, but the reality is that the skills necessary to start and grow a company are rarely contained in just one person. This is true even of some of our most revered entrepreneurs. Yes, Walt Disney may have dreamt of building castles, but it was his brother Roy who ensured they got built. Steve Jobs may have been a visionary marketer, but it was Steve Wozniak who created the technology Jobs would popularize.
“It just cracks me up to hear so many entrepreneurs using the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ when they talk about their success,” Madden says. “Sure, they may have had the initial vision, but without a dedicated, talented team around them, things never would have played out in their favor.”
For Baylis and Watson, finding great business partners who possess a complementary skill set has been hugely important. “I was a great geek, but I didn’t understand sales,” Watson says. “You need someone who’s not the same as you.”
“You can’t do it yourself,” Baylis explains. “You have to find people that compensate for you and that you compensate for. Someone else who says ‘I’m all in too.’ It’s kind of like choosing your spouse.”
Beyond the business partners and employees who work within the entrepreneur’s business on a daily basis, Baylis, Madden, and Watson also point to having a larger network of mentors and business professionals as a critical factor for long-term success. “There’s a real sense of community in Lakeland,” Madden says, “and just as importantly, there’s an abundance of mentors.” Both Watson and Baylis also point to the LEDC’s Catapult project as an important avenue for connecting entrepreneurs to a larger network of people who can help them. “Lakeland wants to support entrepreneurs,” Baylis says, “but historically, there hasn’t been a way to connect people and resources. Catapult has started to change that.”
The George Effect is alive and well in the entrepreneurial spirit of Lakeland. The product still matters. The people still matter. The countless days and nights of unglamorous toil still matter. And yes, so does the grit, pluck, and sheer force of will of the entrepreneur.
PERSISTING DESPITE THE CHALLENGES
Despite the significant challenges facing entrepreneurs, data from the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity indicates that roughly 476,000 new business owners were minted every month in 2013. “I just knew that corporate America wasn’t for me, and I liked being in control,” says Riko Ramos, owner of No Boring Concrete, a decorative concrete business that was recently featured on DIY Network’s Blog Cabin 2014. For Ramos, starting his business created the opportunity to work in a manner consistent with his ideas and expectations. “I was always too boisterous,” he says, “and I spoke up when I felt things were wrong. And, I was always thinking about how I was putting my ideas into someone else’s business.” Still, Ramos is quick to point out that with great freedom comes great responsibility. He says, “People think that [owning your own business] means you can get up and do whatever you want, but if you’re serious about what you want to do, you’re going to get up and find unique ways to make it happen.”
For Matthew Wengerd, owner of A Fine Press, a three-and-a-half-year-old printing business specializing in hand-crafted letterpress invitations, it’s partly about a sense of independence but also about a deep appreciation for the work. “My professional life has either been on the bandstand or in front of a computer,” Wengerd says. “I needed work where I had physical problems to solve. It presents a lot of physical problems that I’ve found gratifying. It’s cathartic.
LESSONS FROM THE TRENCHES
Like other battle-worn entrepreneurs, Lakeland’s don’t shy away from giving away advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. Grounded in hard-earned, personal experiences, they each point to lasting lessons they learned along the way.
For Ramos and Wengerd, it’s about maintaining a keen focus on the quality of their craft. “You’re only as good as your last job,” cautions Ramos. “You’ve got to treat your customer like they are everything, and you’ve got to give it your best, because that could be your next job from their referral.” Those sentiments are echoed by Wengerd as well. “You’ve got to be ready when the President calls,” says Wengerd, who was recently commissioned by The Knot magazine to create invitations for their annual gala in New York.
And while Watson and Baylis place a high importance on serving customers, they also emphasize the importance of taking smart, calculated risks. “Get everything in writing, and get a good accountant early on,” Watson says. “And don’t go all in until you’re sure you’ve got a good concept.”
Baylis advises, “Honestly look at your idea, and then find small ways to test your idea, because the worst thing is a bad idea, or one you’re not ready to fully commit to.”
For Madden, the ultimate lesson is remembering to take care of those around you. “Take care of your people,” he admonishes, “because they truly are your most important asset.” Unfortunately, today’s generation of rising entrepreneurs won’t have the benefit of encountering George Jenkins himself, to hear him impart wisdom and lessons from hard-fought experience. But, despite all the upheavals and new ways of doing business created by technology, it’s clear that many of the same principles that were foundational to his success are just as important today. The George Effect is alive and well in the entrepreneurial spirit of Lakeland. The product still matters. The people still matter. The countless days and nights of unglamorous toil still matter. And yes, so does the grit, pluck, and sheer force of will of the entrepreneur.