Every successful business requires two key elements: a good idea; and the good implementation of that idea. Of those two, the idea itself is the simplest. Inspiration tends to come all at once, without effort and often complete. You don’t need to do any more than slap your forehead and ask yourself why you didn’t think of it before. It’s when you come to put your plan into action that the difficulties begin. The challenges are often unexpected, the costs higher than you planned and your forecasts more optimistic than you might have hoped. And that’s true for even the best prepared and the most experienced of entrepreneurs. While knowing what you want to do is important, having the flexibility to adjust is vital.
Carl Geitz decided to create his own Internet business after a successful career that included managing a product management team at Intuit, creators of QuickBooks and TurboTax. It’s the sort of responsible position that looks good on business plans and which he might have expected to have prepared him fully for creating a small online sales company.
Managers at big companies though get to delegate the day-to-day work. They formulate strategy and make sure that the team is on the right track, while the actual labor is handed out to the designers, professional marketers and coders under their control. They’re the people who know how to deal with the technical problems as they crop up and deliver the results without providing detailed reports on how they achieved them.
Entrepreneurs Are on Their Own
When you’re operating your own business though – and when your only resources are you, your computer and your checkbook – the difficulties can be much harder to handle.
“By the nature of my job at Intuit, I understood what went into developing a website or other technology,” Carl told us. “I was exposed to various aspects of Internet marketing, but never had to deal with the nitty gritty.”
The result was a learning experience that offers lessons in business-building not just for Carl but for anyone who wants build even the smallest of Internet companies.
The inspiration for Carl’s business was a cross-country move. Originally from New England, Carl and his family relocated to Nevada and wanted a way to stay in touch with their East Coast roots. As they were unpacking, they came across an heirloom, a detailed family tree created by an aunt of Carl’s wife Nancy, which traced the family’s lineage all the way back to the Revolutionary War. It was a valuable asset and one they wanted to display. Nowhere though were they able to find a design that was attractive, matched the style of their home and which would allow them to show off their family history.
When the time came to move back east, Carl decided to set up his own business, one that would meet the demand for beautifully designed family tree templates that could be ordered online. Today, ArborArts is Carl’s full-time job – and it’s continued to throw up challenges and surprises.
Perhaps the most important challenge was the expense. ArborArts is completely bootstrapped. The funds come from Carl’s stock options and the appreciation of his home in the years before the decline in real estate prices. So far, Carl has spent over $100,000 on a range of vendors, including artists, Web developers and printers. And then, of course, there’s the lost income that Carl would have earned if he hadn’t been developing ArborArts.
“The biggest expense is really having me spend my time on all the various aspects of pulling the business together instead of drawing a salary,” Carl says.
That means operating with a close eye on the budget, especially in the early days before sales start to come in. Employing in-house staff has to wait until the business is established which demands a reliance on freelancers and outside suppliers. And while that sounds like an ideal solution — a way for a small company to receive expert services without paying a full-time salary – it does affect flexibility.
Freelancers Move Slowly
As awareness of the site grew, Carl would receive feedback from customers and clients but because he had to order the changes from a hired help, he couldn’t make the changes immediately. That slow responsiveness became a major source of frustration.
“The biggest challenge has probably been moving fast enough to respond to learnings along the way, given limited resources,” explains Carl. “When we want to change the website, or develop a new design with an artist, we are by definition working with an outside supplier who doesn’t have the same turn-around responsiveness of someone working down the hall.”
It’s a difficulty that might be familiar to anyone who’s used to working from home or building on a very tight budget but it’s easy to see why it might be surprising — and irritating — to a former manager used to having an experienced team right on hand.
It’s also avoidable. When Carl built ArborArts, he thought the system through and tried to automate as many of the processes as possible. That’s a reasonable thing to do when you’re expecting a constant stream of sales and don’t want to be packing pictures and sealing boxes yourself. But when the sales are only occasional and you’re still learning about what makes the market tick and how you can best supply it, the result is a system that’s much harder to adjust than one created on an ad-hoc basis.
“If I had it to do over again,” concedes Carl, “I’d use more jerry-rigged operations until we proved out various ideas because of the time and flexibility that approach provides.”
That might be surprising but it is sensible advice. An idea might seem good and even complete when it first bursts into your head, but the true test comes when you start to put it into practice. In those early days, you do nee d the flexibility to be able to make adjustments and adapt to what you learn about your niche.
Carl’s original plan had ArborArts generating $1 million in revenue in 2010. Today, he says, the company is “well south of that rate.” But he has learned some valuable lessons, and with those early growing pains behind him and the roots laid, he should be able to look forward to some solid growth in the future.